In Iran, candidates cap a bitter campaign

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

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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.

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

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."

Two-time former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, whose family Ahmadinejad accused of corruption and of being the puppeteer behind Mousavi, wrote an incendiary letter of complaint Tuesday to the Supreme Leader.

"Tens of millions of people in the country and outside watched as [Ahmadinejad] lied and violated laws against religion, morality, and fairness, and as he targeted the achievements of our Islamic system," Mr. Rafsanjani wrote in the letter.

Rafsanjani asked Ayatollah Khamenei to take "serious action" to prevent "this fire from flaring during and after the election."

He said Ahmadinejad was attacking the icons of the revolution, including the integrity of the Supreme Leader himself. Iranians wanted the "truth," Rafsanjani wrote, warning that "the volcanoes that are fueled by people's anger will form in society."

Ahmadinejad beat Rafsanjani in a 2005 runoff, campaigning on an antiestablishment platform that promised to deliver Iran's oil wealth to average Iranians. But the president's abrasive style – and failure to prevent economic decline in an era of record-setting oil prices – has emboldened his opponents.

"This guy has been tripping over and accumulated enemies within the system – he has no friends," says an Iranian political scientist who asked not to be named. "His true strength is his connection to the [poor] people: He looks like them, he lives like them; that is his only capital."

The amount of cash distributed by the president and his cabinet during 60 provincial trips has had an impact, this expert says, "but its reach is not unlimited."

'No right to insult the president'

Ahmadinejad struck back during his final election rally on Wednesday. "No one has the right to insult the president, and they did it. And this is a crime. The person who insulted the president should be punished, and the punishment is jail," he told thousands of supporters. "Such insults and accusations against the government are a return to Hitler's methods, to repeat lies and accusations ... until everyone believes those lies."

All of Ahmadinejad's rivals accused him of lying about economic and other statistics, while the Revolutionary Guards, which supported the president's bid in 2005 and have since benefited hugely from government contracts, warned that the scale of demonstrations was akin to the nonviolent revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989.

"The presence of supporters of Mir Hossein Mousavi on the streets are part of the velvet revolution," said the head of the Guards' political office, Yadollah Javani. "Any kind of velvet revolution will not be successful in Iran."

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