TEHRAN | Iranians flooded into polling stations to vote for president Friday after the most heated campaign in the 30-year history of the Islamic republic exposed bitter divisions among Iran’s ruling elite.
More than 45,000 polling stations around the country opened Friday morning. State television encouraged people to vote and broadcast video footage of past elections, nationalistic songs and pictures of Iranians fighting against Iraq in the 1980-88 war, the Associated Press reported.
At one mosque in southern Tehran, women wearing traditional long black robes lined up to cast their votes. At another station, men and women, holding their young children in their arms, placed their fingerprints on ballots.
Due to heavy voter turnout, voting was extended by two hours to 8 p.m. (11:30 a.m. EDT, 1530 GMT), AP reported.
A high turnout could spell doom for incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose four-year tenure has been marked by economic mismanagement and confrontation with the West. About 46 million of the country’s 70 million people are eligible to vote.
Some observers are predicting a first-round win by Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister who has benefited from widespread disaffection with Mr. Ahmadinejad. Many fear violence.
There are no reports of serious problems or unrest at the polls, but Iran’s mobile text messaging system has been down since Wednesday, eliminating a communication tool that many young people used to spread election information.
“Unfortunately, some of my representatives were blocked from entering polling stations and SMS (text messaging) is also down, which is against the law,” Mousavi said after voting, according to his campaign Web site, reports the AP. “We should not be fearful about the free flow of information, and I urge officials to observe the law.”
Telecommunication Ministry spokesman Davood Zareian confirmed to The Associated Press that the text message system has been down since late Wednesday.
“We are investigating,” he said.
Per tradition, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei placed his ballot in the white ballot box just minutes after the polls opened. Khamenei, who has the final say in all state matters, urged Iranians to vote early.
“As far as I see and hear, passion and motivation is very high among people,” said Khamenei. “We expect people at packed polling stations to be able to choose the best choice for heading the executive branch for four years.”
He also called on Iranians to remain calm and ignore rumors about the election.
“If some intend to create tension, this will harm people,” Khamenei told reporters at the polling station in Tehran, AP reported. “Do not listen to rumors.”
Khamenei, a Shi’ite Muslim cleric, retains the final word on Iranian foreign and domestic policy no matter who wins, but analysts say a defeat for Mr. Ahmadinejad could facilitate negotiations between the U.S. and Iran and a less aggressive Iranian stance in the Middle East.
“What is at stake is literally whether Iran remains a revolutionary state or whether it finally, after 30 years, moves to a post-revolutionary state,” said Hooman Majd, an Iranian-American observer of Iranian politics and the author of “The Ayatollah Begs to Differ.”
Even some religious conservatives “believe the future of Iran is to move beyond the rigidity of a revolutionary state, and the question is whether voters will, with their ballots, demand that Iran do so,” Mr. Majd said.
Although Iran is by no means a democracy - a clerical-led council vets all candidates for elected office and this year eliminated all but four men vying to be president - everything else about this campaign has been unprecedented.
Rallies have produced the biggest public demonstrations since the revolution, including the formation of a human chain along Tehran’s longest boulevard in support of Mr. Mousavi.
In televised debates, Mr. Ahmadinejad and his three opponents traded charges of corruption, lying, faking academic credentials and running secret prisons.
The level of invective went so high that Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president defeated by Mr. Ahmadinejad in 2005, made public this week an unusual letter to Ayatollah Khamenei. In the letter, Mr. Rafsanjani complained that the supreme leader had not acted against “such ugly and sin-infected phenomena as insults, lies and false allegations made” by Mr. Ahmadinejad about the Rafsanjani family during a debate between the president and Mr. Mousavi.
Mr. Ahmadinejad has accused the Rafsanjanis, one of Iran’s richest families, of financing the Mousavi campaign and questioned the academic credentials of Mr. Mousavi’s wife, a former university chancellor who has campaigned at her husband’s side - another first for the Islamic republic.
“It’s hard to watch the past few weeks and think of any moment as important or interesting as this one” in Iran’s limited democracy, said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran specialist at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center in Washington.
Calling the debates “catalytic moments,” she said the televised encounters would be “remembered for a long time irrespective of the outcome” because of the unprecedented nature of the issues raised.
Shattering taboos over unveiling the seamier aspects of the regime - raising charges that in the past got people thrown into prison - would make it much harder for Iranian authorities in the future to clamp down on public expression, Ms. Maloney said.
That said, she and other analysts worried about violence in Iran if Mr. Ahmadinejad loses Friday or in a runoff election a week later that would be required if no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote.
“This is a precarious moment for Iran,” she said.
Mr. Rafsanjani also said he was worried about violence if Mr. Ahmadinejad wins.
“Even if I continue to tolerate this situation, there is no doubt that some people, parties and factions will not tolerate this situation,” Mr. Rafsanjani wrote to Ayatollah Khamenei in an oblique reference to Ahmadinejad opponents taking matters into their own hands.
The elections are being held as the Revolutionary Guards, an elite military force, has amassed more power than ever before. There are questions about whether Revolutionary Guards officers who have benefited under Mr. Ahmadinejad’s tenure will go quietly if he loses. Some in the organization have accused Mousavi supporters of seeking a “velvet” counterrevolution to overthrow the Islamic regime through the ballot box.
About 200,000 men have been mobilized to provide security. Mr. Rafsanjani’s family is deploying its own small army of poll watchers to prevent a repetition of what many say was widespread fraud in 2005 that enabled Mr. Ahmadinejad - then an obscure appointed mayor of Tehran - to make it into a second round and ultimately defeat Mr. Rafsanjani.
During the election campaign, Iran’s revolutionary elite has been divided over the candidacies of Mr. Ahmadinejad, Mr. Mousavi, a pragmatic conservative, Mohsen Rezaie, and a reformer, Mehdi Karroubi.
Mr. Rafsanjani is widely thought to be bankrolling the Mousavi campaign, which has featured U.S.-style trappings such as green rubber wristbands. Other prominent figures, including former Tehran Mayor Gholam Hossein Karbaschi and hostage holder turned reformist Abbas Abdi, have backed Mr. Karroubi.
Meanwhile, Mr. Rezaie, the former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, appears to be peeling off some conservative support from Mr. Ahmadinejad. The president, however, seems to have the backing of Ayatollah Khamenei.
The regime has been shaken by the charges of corruption and human rights abuses that were aired during the debates watched by millions of people inside Iran and in the large Iranian diaspora abroad.
“I think they lost control of this at some point,” said a Tehrani civil servant who requested anonymity. “It’s now gone beyond an election and the whole structure may collapse around their ears.”
The vote promises to be another cliffhanger in a line of contests stretching back to reformist Mohammed Khatami’s upset in 1997 in which he dislodged the supreme leader’s choice to claim the presidency. Despite repressive forces that cut short Mr. Khatami’s reform experiment and deeper crackdowns under Mr. Ahmadinejad, a populous young generation is clamoring for more rights and pushing the Islamic republic’s guardians of morality further on the defensive.
“Twenty years ago you couldn’t wear a backpack or ride skateboards because they were considered to be symbols of the imperialist West,” said a 27-year-old Mousavi supporter who gave only his first name, Mansour.
Taking advantage of laxer security during the election campaign, thousands of young people have taken to the streets after the presidential debates and spent the evening dancing and shouting slogans calling Mr. Ahmadinejad a liar and condemning the Islamic republic.
The president still has his loyal supporters among the urban and rural poor, who see the scruffy-looking politician as one of their own.
“We’ve never had a president who’s been insulted so much as Ahmadinejad,” said Hassan Nassiri Khalili, a customs official at Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran who will be voting for the incumbent. “Just look at Obama, a black being elected in the U.S. Can’t we also have an untypical president?”
Whoever wins, the feeling here is that the time has come for Iran to engage with the United States on a series of issues affecting regional security. If Mr. Mousavi wins, that could be easier, Mr. Majd said.
“It needn’t abandon its principles of supporting resistance groups or its opposition to U.S. influence in the region, but it can, with a change in the leadership, begin to gain the trust of the outside world, and in the age of Obama, move towards better relations with the West that will be to the benefit of all sides,” he said.
Barbara Slavin reported from Washington. Iason Athanasiadis reported in part through a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.