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Hardliner on course for big Iran election win
Hardline Tehran mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad swept toward a stunning presidential election victory over veteran cleric Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani on Saturday with the backing of Iran's religious poor, officials said.
Political analysts say a win for Ahmadinejad, 48, could spell an end to fragile social reforms made under outgoing President Mohammad Khatami and harden Iran's foreign policy toward the West, particularly over its nuclear program.
An official at the Islamic Republic's Guardian Council, which must approve the election results, said that with 13.3 million votes counted, Ahmadinejad had secured 61.6 percent.
Friday's vote exposed deep class divisions in the oil-producing nation of 67 million people.
"Ahmadinejad is well ahead and it seems he is the winner," said an Interior Ministry official, who declined to be named. "Poor provinces have voted massively for Ahmadinejad."
Pro-reform political parties, students, clerics and academics had backed Rafsanjani, accusing Ahmadinejad of representing an authoritarian trend in Iranian politics.
"Ahmadinejad is like a tsunami," a close aide to the mayor said. "In this election, the people were on one side and political parties supporting Rafsanjani were on the other."
"It is heard that the campaign staff of the two rivals are preparing to celebrate," he said in a statement. "Dragging people onto the streets ... under any pretext is against the interests of the country."
Earlier both camps had proclaimed victory.
Aides to Rafsanjani, who was president from 1989 to 1997 and has cast himself as a reformer, had accused the hardline Basij militia of trying to intimidate voters to back Ahmadinejad.
"We know massive irregularities have taken place in steering votes toward a certain candidate in which the Basij has played a role," one aide, Mohammad Atrianfar, told reporters.
Officials at the reformist-run Interior Ministry also complained of illegal election-day campaigning.
An Ahmadinejad win would represent a crushing political failure for Rafsanjani, 70, who has been at the forefront of Iranian politics for the past 26 years.
Rafsanjani had said he wanted to improve ties with the West. Ahmadinejad said restoring ties with Washington was unimportant.
President Bush's administration accuses Iran of backing terrorism and having a nuclear weapons program. Tehran denies the charges and says its nuclear program is solely for power generation.
Although Khamenei has far more power than the president, analysts say a hardline government would remove a moderating influence on decision-making.
"Whoever loses we are going to feel the reverberations," said Karim Sadjadpour, Tehran-based analyst for think-tank International Crisis Group. "Either of them are going to inherit a divided nation. Both of them are polarizing figures."
Voting was brisk in Ahmadinejad bastions of support such as south Tehran and the Islamic seminary city of Qom.
"I vote for Ahmadinejad because he wants to cut the hands of those who are stealing the national wealth and he wants to fight poverty ... and discrimination," said Rahmatollah Izadpanah, 41.
In wealthier north Tehran, Rafsanjani voters said they feared Ahmadinejad would reverse modest reforms made under Khatami that allow women to dress in brighter, skimpier clothes and couples to fraternize in public without fear of arrest.
"(Rafsanjani) will prevent society from going backwards and he will give us some freedom," said businessman Morteza, 46.