TEHRAN, Iran - Iranians were going to the polls today in a close presidential race, with hard-liners wishing for a high turnout that would show support of the Islamic state has not withered, and liberals hoping that a reformist candidate would prove an upset winner.
Supporters of reformer Mostafa Moin maintained yesterday that they detected a late surge in his direction. But polls say Hashemi Rafsanjani, the pragmatic and wealthy mullah who was president from 1989 to 1997, remained at the head of the pack.
With seven candidates in the race, it seemed likely that Iran would be forced to hold a runoff election for the first time since the 1979 revolution. A second round will be held if no candidate receives 50 percent of the vote.
President Bush yesterday sharply criticized the election, saying it fell short of democracy because candidates needed to be cleared by the Guardian Council in order to get onto the ballot.
"Power is in the hands of an unelected few who have retained power through an electoral process that ignores the basic requirements of democracy," Bush said in a statement. "The June 17th presidential elections are sadly consistent with this oppressive record."
Initially the Guardian Council, an unelected panel answerable only to the country's unelected supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had ruled that no reformers could run. But the ayatollah stepped into the fray, overruled the council and ordered that Moin and a less-known reformer be put on the ballot.
Compared with other countries in the Middle East, an Iranian election is a brash and Western-style affair, with campaign rallies, heavy advertising and imaginative campaign gimmicks. The hard-line mullahs have a history of recognizing the democratic results even when they are unpalatable to them, such as the victory of current President Mohammad Khatami in 1997. He was re-elected in 2001.
When given the choice in recent years, voters have almost always asked for more reform and liberalization. But politicians pushing for change also have been accused of raising expectations that they could not deliver because of the conservatives' control of key ministries, the judiciary and now the parliament.
When Rafsanjani finally announced his candidacy in May, many in the media and among the public believed he would be the clear front-runner. This belief was strengthened by initial opinion surveys.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.
The front-running candidates in today's presidential election in Iran:
HASHEMI RAFSANJANI: The 70-year-old politician is seen as the most credible force to stop arch-conservatives from taking the presidency. Rafsanjani was president from 1989 to 1997. He has frequently changed positions -- sometimes backing the hard-line camp, sometimes taking a more moderate line and trying to build ties with the West.
MOHAMMAD BAGHER QALIBAF: A former national police chief, Qalibaf, 44, used to be answerable only to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and is thought to be backed by the supreme leader's allies. Qalibaf won praise for dealing peacefully with pro-democracy student protests and not resorting to the iron-fist tactics of his predecessors. He helped change the image of Iran's police to a more respectable, neutral force.
MOSTAFA MOIN: A former minister of culture and higher education, Moin, 54, is the most prominent reformist candidate. He was initially barred from running by the Guardian Council, but approved after Khamenei's intervention. Moin has made it clear he will challenge hard-liners and seek direct dialogue with Washington.
ALI LARIJANI: The former head of Iran's state radio and television, Larijani, 48, is a close aide to Khamenei. He was the most effective weapon in the hands of hard-liners in curtailing outgoing President Mohammad Khatami's reforms. A former Revolutionary Guards commander, he advocates a tougher line against the Europeans in the negotiations over Iran's nuclear program.