Iran votes hard-liner into runoff

A surprise presidential contender has emerged.

Ideological. Hard-line. And zealously committed to the principles of Iran's Islamic revolution.

Tehran's simple-living Mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a man who strikes fear in the hearts of Iran's Western-leaning reformers. He is also the ultraconservative who has defied every prediction with a second-place finish in Friday's presidential vote.

Trailing just behind the front- runner, Mr. Ahmadinejad will take on former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who won 21 percent of the vote, in a runoff expected next Friday.

Iranians are reeling from results that also rejected the two reformist candidates who had pledged to continue the once-popular agenda of outgoing President Mohamad Khatami.

While Mr. Rafsanjani grabbed headlines with slick TV segments and a campaign that flouted social rules and promised more freedom, Ahmadinejad used his lower-class background to tap deeply into the concerns of Iran's often-overlooked religious poor.

"He has been appealing to those deprived people, who feel he has come from among them, and can feel what they feel," says Mohammad Hossein Panahi, a sociologist at the University of Allameh Tabatabai in Tehran. "The clergy have been on his side, and propagating for him as a religious man of the lower classes."

The result has caused soul-searching for reform supporters, many of whom boycotted a poll in which Iran's theocratic leadership used a 63 percent turnout to reaffirm popular support for the Islamic Republic.

Defeated reform candidates declared Saturday that the results had been rigged to exclude them from a second round, as the Guardian Council and Ministry of Interior - controlled by hard-line and reform factions, respectively - appeared to issue contradictory initial results.

Third-place finisher Mehdi Karroubi, a former parliamentary speaker who finished with 19.3 percent of the vote, just behind Ahmadinejad's 19.48, decried a "bizarre interference" in which "money has changed hands."

Mustafa Moin, the leading reform candidate before the vote, placed fifth with 13.8 percent. He claimed an "illegal" effort to "deprive a candidate of his rights."

"This is a warning for democracy," said Mr. Moin, who has spoken of the risk of "religious totalitarianism" if hard-liners win the presidency, as they have taken control of the Tehran City Council and national parliament, or majlis, in recent years. Not long ago, the majlis gave $350 million of excess oil profit funds to the hard-line religious Basiji militia.

"We must be aware that such efforts will eventually lead to militarizing the regime, and political and social repression," he said.

The prospect of a hard-line executive is likely to propel many reform supporters to turn out for Rafsanjani, even though the wily veteran of Iranian politics has strong enemies on left and right.

"I didn't vote [in the first round], but I definitely will next Friday!" explains a young father from affluent north Tehran.

"I feel betrayed," said Mohamed, a middle-class Iranian who voted for Mr. Moin. "No one even knew Ahmadinejad before this. How could he come from nowhere, without cheating? All those who voted for him have ties to the regime."

Indeed, the newspaper Kayhan and other conservative voices called for consensus behind a single candidate. That message appears to have gotten out to Basiji forces - often deployed to break up prodemocracy protests - on the eve of the vote.

Whoever wins the presidency will work in the shadow of the unelected supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, who has final say on all issues. But in Iran's unique combination of Islam and democracy, the president can set tone and agenda.

"I know the Iranian culture, and I know how to relate to the Iranian people - this is a great gift from God," Ahmadinejad said Saturday, calling the vote "a day of friendship and brotherhood."

Asked if current freedoms would continue, Ahmadinejad was noncommittal. "Freedom is the spirit of the Islamic revolution," he said. "And in our religious democracy, this is much greater than you can imagine."

The son of a blacksmith, Ahmadinejad ran a low-key campaign that contrasted sharply with the $5 million spent by Rafsanjani on everything from flashy posters to countless campaign offices and pop music events.

Evoking an opposite message, the mayor showed TV footage of his modest home, and described an ascetic lifestyle. "Those who voted for me, did so without paying attention to [rich campaign] election materials," said Ahmadinejad. "They created a relationship between hearts, and this is my way. Those voters had the intention of doing the right thing, for the sake of God."

Also appealing to the lower class are Ahmadinejad's credentials as a special-forces officer in the Revolutionary Guard and a instructor of the Basiji.

But Ahmadinejad has had a mixed record as mayor, since the new city council took over with just 12 percent turnout in 2003. And last week he fired the editor of Hamshahri - Iran's largest moderate-conservative daily, of which the city is the proprietor - for backing rival candidates.

"His lack of administrative record was very helpful to him," says Professor Panahi. But the mayor's success also shows a weakness in Rafsanjani's race.

"If Rafsanjani keeps going the way [of courting reformist youth], he will get even less support of the lower classes.... There's a real chance of Ahmadinejad coming up," says Panahi. "Rafsanjani must ... mobilize the middle and upper classes to vote - with the threat of an Ahmadinejad presidency - and convince lower classes that he understands their needs."

The threat of such a presidency already resonates with core reformers. "Some people say that society can't go backward," Emadedin Baghi, head of the Association of Human Rights and Prisoners, said Sunday. "If Rafsanjani becomes president, we will have a space to breathe. But if his competitor comes to power, much of this space will be eliminated."

How Iranians voted

With no candidate garnering 50 percent of the vote, a runoff election between the top two candidates is expected June 24.

• Turnout: nearly 63 percent

• Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani: 21 percent

• Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: 19.48 percent

SOURCE: Iranian Interior Ministry

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