Voters overwhelmingly reelected Iranian President Mohammad Khatami to a second term Friday, according to early returns, handing religious conservatives their fourth consecutive defeat at the ballot box and underscoring the widespread desire for a more democratic society.
With a fraction of total ballots counted, officials said this morning that the reform-minded president would likely capture 75% of the vote, which would best the 69% he won four years ago in his first landslide victory.
Of votes tallied from 6,564 polling sites in 81 cities around Iran, Khatami had 3,656,397 and his nearest opponent, former Labor Minister Ahmad Tavakoli, received 604,385. There are a total of 37,144 polling stations.
The dramatic show of support for the president was underlined by a higher-than-expected turnout, with as many as 35 million of the republic's 43 million eligible voters casting ballots, officials said.
But if Khatami, 57, won on a wave of optimism and enthusiasm four years ago, his reelection Friday came from a nation that is cynical and weary, uncertain that he can push his reform agenda past the religious hierarchy yet convinced that he represents its last great hope for change.
"I am confident Mr. Khatami will try. That is all we can hope for," said Vida Jalali, 42, a teacher who skipped lunch and work to cast her ballot at the Allah Ghadir Mosque in the north of Tehran, the capital. "We know his hands are tied. All these people know his hands are tied."
Although Khatami's first term was defined by his inability to move quickly, the president fundamentally altered the political landscape. The campaign leading up to Friday's vote made it clear that there is now support on both right and left for political, social and economic reform. It also revealed a split among conservatives, with an emerging centrist bloc that is beginning to sound a lot like the president it wanted to unseat.
Within this new environment, Khatami has said he would use a second term to focus on the economy and reform the judiciary. For one thing, he has said he wants to encourage more foreign investment.
During the campaign, he also hinted that he might be more aggressive in fighting hard-line conservatives. Until now, he has refused to confront his opposition.
"I will not surrender to violence and extremism," Khatami declared at a news conference Wednesday. "We have to allow people to question the government."
If the outcome of Friday's vote was a foregone conclusion, there is nothing certain about the future of this volatile nation. Iran has not only an elected president but also an elected parliament. Still, the will of the people as reflected at the ballot box, or in the actions of the parliament, does not drive policy. Rather, the country's self-appointed religious leadership has final say on all matters of law.
In the last several weeks, the president's supporters tried to rally the electorate by insisting that a landslide victory was necessary if Khatami was to have the political capital to push his agenda past the conservatives. But conservatives warned that too one-sided a victory for the president might only lead the nation toward conflict by energizing extremists on both sides.
"A high vote for Khatami might empower their radicals and provoke our radicals," said Amir Mohebian, editor of the right-leaning newspaper Ressallat. "There is the possibility we will have more tension, and I can predict that two years from now, we will have serious problems."
But that argument didn't dissuade voters from turning out in larger numbers than expected. Voting was extended by four hours across the nation. In Tehran and six other cities, the polls were so crowded Friday night that voting was extended by five hours. And in the capital, most of the late voting appeared to be for Khatami. From the well-to-do northern neighborhoods to the working-class communities in the south, voters said they could not see any alternative to voting for the president--though they did not hold out great optimism for dramatic change in a second term.
"Khatami has not done much for us," said Masoud Balapour, 21, who works in an open-air market in southern Tehran selling materials to make shoes. "If he goes, he will not be replaced by anyone better, so I vote for him."
Balapour's friend Abas Moustaghin, 30, voted for Tavakoli, not because he didn't like what Khatami stands for but because he figured that the reform-minded president simply wouldn't be able to get anything accomplished.
"We tried Khatami during these four years, and he got nothing done," he said. "I am not putting blame on him. But he is the president, and I expect the president to get something done."
Four years ago, Khatami was a little-known midlevel cleric who had once been dismissed from his post as minister of culture and guidance because of his liberal views. The ruling mullahs allowed him into the race without any expectation that he would undercut the monopoly on power they had held since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
But Khatami tapped into widespread discontent by promising to loosen some strict Islamic social codes, permit dissenting opinions and open the country to freedom and democracy. His goal was to democratize the Islamic-based system.
After Khatami's landslide victory, reform-oriented candidates went on to wrest control of the parliament, or Majlis, away from the conservatives and then won in local elections.
Yet optimism eventually gave way to frustration and disgust within an electorate that saw its voice ignored by the religious leadership. At every turn, it appeared, Khatami was being blocked. There was a more relaxed atmosphere--young people could date, enforcement of the strict dress code eased. But reform newspapers were being shut down, liberals were jailed--even killed--in mysterious circumstances, and efforts to put the voice of the elected government on a par with that of the religious leadership--at least in terms of administering the policy of government--were blocked.
There was a broad sense that Khatami had failed and that his presence in the presidency did nothing but offer a face of legitimacy to the hard-line mullahs.
As election day approached, however, that discontent gave way to a grudging acknowledgment among many that Khatami's presidency has changed the political dialogue here, with all sides accepting the need for reform. In this way, at least, the president will begin a second term with the Iranian people politically closer than they have been in years.
Many of the conservative candidates avoided even calling themselves conservative, opting instead for the description "independent." And throughout the campaign, conservatives tried to co-opt many of Khatami's issues, supporting institutionalization of democracy and the rule of law. Their only criticism of the president involved his failed efforts to push through economic reforms that would prop up the sagging oil-based economy.
When Khatami takes the oath of office for a second and final time in mid-July--the constitution permits only two terms as president--he will do so at a fragile time, with hard-liners eager to hold on to their power and his supporters short on patience. He will have to walk a tightrope between the two, trying to produce results for his followers and not to inflame the religious authorities so that they make it impossible for him to accomplish anything.
"More important than the vote is how Mr. Khatami is going to behave: Is he going to be a spokesman for reforms or a leader? Up until now, he has been a spokesman," said Nasser Hadian, an assistant professor of law and political science at the University of Tehran. "The reason people are dissatisfied with him is he has not acted like a leader."
That feeling was echoed by voters who lined up to cast their ballots Friday.
"If Khatami does not fulfill what people want this time, we are going into the streets," said Zari Taghizadeh, a Tehran homemaker in her 40s. "If things don't change, this is the last time I am going to vote."