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In Iran, candidates cap a bitter campaign

Street demonstrations quieted ahead of intensely anticipated presidential vote on Friday.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 12, 2009

The streets of Tehran were filled with political demonstrations leading up to Friday's vote. The campaign has pitted a fiery incumbent against a moderate reformer and is expected to draw possible record turnouts of voters.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images

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Tehran, Iran

Days and nights of irreverent and raucous street party demonstrations calmed Thursday, as Iranians prepared to vote in presidential elections on Friday.

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Hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been locked in bitter battle with three rivals, including a moderate former prime minister whose campaign has galvanized the anti-Ahmadinejad vote. Officials expect a very high – and possibly record – turnout.

Supporters of Mir Hossein Mousavi, dressed in green and with runaway expectations of a first round victory – realistic or not – capped their campaign in the early hours Thursday morning with an arresting image: A campaign banner of the smiling president held upside down, its face crossed out with red ink and the words: "Goodbye Dictator."

Two men wearing green face masks held the banner over a street packed with people, motorcycles, and slow-moving cars. Drivers wishing to express their desire for change could drive under the image of the upside-down president. Many did.

Pious populist vs. reformist challenger

This election pits Mr. Ahmadinejad's fiery brand of pious populism at home and uncompromising nuclear and anti-West and anti-Israel policies abroad against a reformist challenger who promises moderation to reverse Iran's "denigration" in the eyes of the world.

Regardless of who wins, analysts say, the once-sacred Islamic "system" created during Iran's 1979 revolution has been subject to unprecedented criticism and charges of top-level corruption and lying amid the candidates' bruising campaigns.

Ahmadinejad set the tone last week during live, nationally televised debates in which he went so far as to name as corrupt top regime officials who are close to Iran's supreme religious leader Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei – a man who has often backed the president.

"[Ahmadinejad's] questions undermined many things," says Mehdi Karroubi, the former parliament speaker and reformist presidential candidate, in an interview. "I don't say that's his intention, but because he wants to win and will say it to trick the people. He wants to say: 'My government is clean and pure.'"

Swift reaction to Ahmadinejad charges

Reaction has been fierce, even as rival supporters took to the streets, and the candidates sparred in six televised debates.

"Hardly anyone else could have done so much damage," says Nasser Hadian-Jazy, a political scientist at Tehran University. "If this is a religious government and it is corrupt, then what is the difference [versus secular rule]? It damages the whole notion of religious government."

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