Hard-Liner Wins Decisively in Iran Presidential Election

Times Staff Writer

The mayor of Tehran won Iran's presidency in a landslide Friday, using support from the clerical hierarchy and the country's vast military to restore total control of the government to Islamic fundamentalists and end an eight-year experiment in reform.

Partial returns released by the official news agency early today gave Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a political newcomer, more than 61% of the vote in his runoff contest with former President Hashemi Rafsanjani. Officials said the turnout was about 48% of the 47 million eligible voters, well short of the 63% reported in the first round of balloting a week ago.

Voters divided by class and ideology went to the polls in a battle for Iran's future, with many of the poor favoring the fundamentalist mayor, who vowed to end corruption and bring back revolutionary fervor. More affluent and liberal Iranians had regarded Rafsanjani, a centrist, as the last hope for reform.

With 18.4 million votes counted, Ahmadinejad had garnered 61.5%, an official with the Guardian Council said, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency. The Guardian Council, a conservative body of clerics and lawyers, supervises elections.

After being roundly rebuffed by voters in the last two presidential elections, conservatives regained control by painting the reformist camp, represented by outgoing President Mohammad Khatami, as corrupt, ineffectual and out of touch with ordinary people.

They were also helped by a trend among many opponents of the Islamic Republic's religious elite to reject reform as impossible in a country where the constitution gives the unelected supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, control of the main levers of power, including the judiciary and armed forces.

The hard-line victory would appear to rule out any early improvement in relations between Iran and the West and could increase the chance of confrontation with the United States over Iran's nuclear development program, which Ahmadinejad has praised.

Unlike Rafsanjani, the mayor had said that better ties with the United States would not be a priority. He also has voiced disdain for Western-style democracy.

"We did not have a revolution in order to have democracy," he said last week.

Supporters of Ahmadinejad will go to mosques and "thank God for this great victory," campaign manager Ali Akbar Javanfekr told Associated Press.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Joanne Moore reiterated criticism that U.S. officials had leveled at Iran before the first round of voting.

"With the conclusion of the elections in Iran, we have seen nothing that dissuades us from our view that Iran is out of step with the rest of the region and the currents of freedom and liberty that have been so apparent in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon," she said. "These elections were flawed from the inception by the decision of an unelected few to deny the applications of over 1,000 candidates, including all 93 women."

Before the polls closed, there were complaints of irregularities at some Tehran voting places as conservatives and reformers clashed over the alleged presence of Islamic militiamen.

The reformist-controlled Interior Ministry asked for the closure of at least six stations to clear out the irregulars, who have backed Ahmadinejad, but the request was turned down by the Guardian Council, news agencies said.

Officials repeatedly extended the period for voting before finally ordering stations closed at 11 p.m., four hours after the scheduled closing time.

The two candidates provided a study in contrasts within the Islamic system.

Rafsanjani, at 70, was the old, familiar face -- too familiar for many. The wheeler-dealer millionaire cleric had been part of the country's ruling clique since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. President from 1989 to 1997, he has since been head of the Expediency Council, which resolves conflicts inside the government.

Long known for political wiles and pragmatism, he styled himself a reformer and had said that only he could save the limited freedoms allowed during Khatami's tenure.

Election banners along Vali Asr, Tehran's main street, said Rafsanjani would take Iran into the future, not back to the past. Opponents, however, accused him of lavish living and putting relatives into lucrative posts.

Ahmadinejad, 48, has never held an elected office and has been the appointed mayor of Tehran for just two years. A former Revolutionary Guard and instructor for the pro-government Basiji militia, he talks tough toward Iran's enemies and promises to reverse what he views as the watering down of the militant politics of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic's founder. He has a strong following in the military and among working-class Iranians and the clergy.

His foes fear he will take the country backward to the terror-filled days just after the revolution and increase the segregation of the sexes in public as well as bring on isolation, economic decline and a heightened risk of confrontation with the West over human rights and nuclear weapons. Ahmadinejad calls such accusations politically motivated lies.

Voting early in the morning, Rafsanjani said he would marshal a political front "to stop the domination of extremism."

Ahmadinejad, as he cast his ballot, pledged to bring about "a new political era."

"What will come out of the ballot boxes are the sprouts of hope, pride and dignity of the great people of Iran," he said. He also called the current status of liberties inside Iran "outstanding" and said that the country's pursuit of nuclear power should continue.

"You can't prevent the growth of a nation," he said.

Many Iranians, disgruntled with the country's "religious democracy," were unhappy with both candidates.

"We don't believe in any of them," said Kourouch, a 20-year-old in south Tehran near the old Jewish quarter. A fan of rap singer Eminem who worked in a carpet shop but dreams of success as a pop lyricist, he said he would not bother walking 20 feet to the voting station next door because he considered neither politician worthy of support. He asked that his last name not be published.

Ali Tajvar, 23, who had delivered a friend to the packed polling station in the Fereshteh Street mosque in an affluent area of north Tehran, lounged outside rather than voting himself. He said neither candidate spoke to his generation.

"We need what the older generation had -- freedom, culture," he said. "We do not need the government to interfere with our way of life."

Effat Barghi, 45, a housewife who didn't vote in the first round, went to the polling station with her husband and two children Friday. She said she was alarmed at the prospect of hard-liners aligned with Ahmadinejad gaining any more control.

"What is important for us is freedom for the youth," she said. "We don't want to be put under pressure about Islamic covering again. I want to see my daughter have more freedom."

But although the neighborhoods of north Tehran lined up almost uniformly in support of Rafsanjani, vast, poor swaths of the capital's southern parts favored Ahmadinejad.

In Shoush, a neighborhood where many people are unemployed and where those who do work full time might earn only about $120 a month, employees of a fruit shop said they had voted for the Tehran mayor, who had pledged to provide loans so young people can get married, cap housing costs and improve pensions and health benefits.

"He's good, because he is a fundamentalist. He's pious," said Hady Akbari, 17, piling melons inside the shop.

"He is very concerned about Islamic dressing," said Fatama Qaffari, 27, who went to the polls with her mother-in-law, both dressed in traditional black chadors. Such dress was de rigueur in the early days of the revolution but has since been replaced by colorful scarves and close-fitting tunics in the more affluent north.

Unlike Rafsanjani, Qaffari said, the Tehran mayor will "listen to the voice of the people. As far as I know, he leads a simple life like us, the common people."

The first round of voting included seven candidates, but none of the main reformists survived to the runoff.

Rafsanjani, who was distrusted by many in the reform camp, led the field and became the only alternative for Iranians who preferred a more open society and less confrontation with the West. But contrary to expectations that he would secure a first-round victory, he netted just 21% of the vote.

The surprise of the first round was Ahmadinejad's showing. He came in hard on Rafsanjani's heels with 19.5%.

In the week between the first round and the runoff, his campaign clearly picked up momentum as more Iranians got to know him through newspaper articles and TV interviews.

He was presented as a shining knight of Islam, ready to help the downtrodden, whom he said had been forgotten by the elites -- a clear poke at Rafsanjani and the reformist generation of young people who are avid fans of the Internet, wear makeup and are indifferent, if not hostile, to the Iranian theocracy.

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