Close Iranian election may lead to run-off

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

TEHRAN, Iran -- The campaign manager for front-runner Hashemi Rafsanjani said Tuesday he expects his candidate to win Iran's presidential election, although it may take an unprecedented run-off ballot.

Opinion polls show Rafsanjani, who was president from 1989 to 1997, with a narrow lead heading into Friday's vote. But candidates and analysts are increasingly speculating the contest will go to a run-off one week later.

"Our estimation is that Rafsanjani will win 52 percent of the votes Friday. In the worst of cases, he will win in the run-off," said Vice President Hossein Marashi, Rafsanjani's campaign manager and brother-in-law.

Rafsanjani is seen as the most credible force to stop hard-liners from seizing the presidency.

Rafsanjani is presenting himself to the world as the only candidate who will not develop a nuclear bomb and to Iranians as the man who will end more than a quarter-century of estrangement between Tehran and Washington.

"I am going for a policy of relaxation of tension and detente, and this is a policy I will apply to the United States," Rafsanjani told CNN Tuesday. "I think the time is right to open a new chapter with the United States."

Anticipating a close race, out-going president Mohammad Khatami said the government is ready for any possiblity.

"The Interior Ministry is fully prepared to organize run-off elections," he told reporters Tuesday.

Top reformist candidate Mostafa Moin and hard-liner Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf are second and third in opinion polls.

If no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote, there will be a run-off between the two leading vote-getters. It will be a first for Iran where a candidate has never failed to reach 50 percent on the first ballot.

Anticipating a close race, outgoing President Mohammad Khatami said the government was ready for every possibility.

"The Interior Ministry is fully prepared to organize run-off elections," he told reporters Tuesday.

Polls predict a turnout of 50 percent to 55 percent of Iran's 48 million eligible voters, a low figure that analysts say is likely to benefit the hard-liners.

The hard-line ruling clerics loyal to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are hoping the vote will consolidate their power. The Guardian Council, a watchdog for Iran's theocratic constitution, initially barred reformers from running. But Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters, forced the council to reverse that decision.

He apparently was worried that low turnout could undermine the ruling Islamic establishment and weaken its position in crucial negotiations with Europeans over Iran's nuclear program and embolden the United States, whose forces are stationed in Iraq, which borders Iran.

Moin, a former culture and higher education minister, is expected to be the biggest loser if turnout is low, a fact that has not escaped him. Reformers predict a high turnout will give Moin a victory, while a turnout of 50 percent or lower will give Rafsanjani or one of hard-line candidates the win.

Moin's main supporters are Iran's youth but many students have decided to boycott the polls out of a belief that democratic reforms are impossible within the ruling Islamic establishment.

Moin has warned that a boycott could pave the way for a totalitarian state and just help hard-liners consolidate their grip on power. He has focused his campaign on persuading disillusioned young people -- who make up the majority of Iran's 70 million population -- to go to the polls.

"Moin will go to a second round," said Mohammad Reza Khatami, leader of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, Iran's largest reformist party.

Friday's election will choose a successor to Khatami, who came to power in 1997 but whose attempts to bring reforms were thwarted by hard-line clerics loyal to Khamenei. Khatami is barred by law from seeking a third term.

Hard-line strategists have urged four of the most hard-line candidates to withdraw in favor of one to boost their chances, but there has been no sign of any response to that call.

The hard-liners -- former national police chief Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf; former radio and television chief Ali Larijani; Tehran Mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; former head of the elite Revolutionary Guards Mohsen Rezaei -- are all former military commanders.

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