Printed on: June 15, 2013

Iran's Rowhani sees wide lead in race

BRIAN MURPHY
Associated Press

TEHRAN, Iran -- Iran's reformist-backed presidential candidate surged to a wide lead in early vote counting Saturday, a top official said, suggesting a flurry of late support could have swayed a race that once appeared solidly in the hands of Tehran's ruling clerics.

But the strong margin for former nuclear negotiator Hasan Rowhani was not yet enough to give him an outright victory and avoid a two-person runoff next Friday.

Rowhani had about 48.2 percent of the more than 3 million votes tallied, the interior ministry reported, well ahead of Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf with about 16.1 percent. Hardline nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili was third with about 12.6 percent.

It was unclear when the final count would be known. Iran has more than 50 million eligible voters, and turnout in Friday's election was believed to be high.

Many reform-minded Iranians who have faced years of crackdowns looked to Rowhani's rising fortunes as a chance to claw back a bit of ground.

While Iran's presidential elections offer a window into the political pecking orders and security grip inside the country --particularly since the chaos from a disputed outcome in 2009 -- they lack the drama of truly high stakes as the country's ruling clerics and their military guardians remain the ultimate powers.

Election officials began the ballot count after voters waited on line for hours in wilting heat at some polling stations in downtown Tehran and other cities, while others cast ballots across the vast country from desert outposts to Gulf seaports and nomad pastures. Voting was extended by five hours to meet demand, but also as possible political stagecraft to showcase the participation.

The apparent strong turnout -- estimated at 75 percent by the hardline newspaper Kayhan -- suggested liberals and others abandoned a planned boycott as the election was transformed into a showdown across the Islamic Republic's political divide.

On one side were hard-liners looking to cement their control behind candidates such as Jalili, who says he is "100 percent" against detente with Iran's foes, or Qalibaf.

Opposing them were reformists and others rallying behind the "purple wave" campaign of Rowhani, the lone relative moderate left in the race.

The interior ministry said Rowhani had more than 1.4 million votes from the 3,024,434 counted so far. Qalibaf trailed with more than 487,000, and Jalili had more than 383,000. The other three candidates were further back.

But even if the last-moment surge around Rowhani brings him to the presidency, it would be more of a limited victory than a deep shake-up. Iran's establishment -- a tight alliance of the ruling clerics and the ultra-powerful Revolutionary Guard -- still holds all the effective power and sets the agenda on all major decisions such as Iran's nuclear program and its dealings with the West.