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A path to change or more of the same?

The level of debate in the run-up to Friday's presidential poll has surprised even the hard-line president.

An Iranian woman supporting former prime minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who is a candidate for the upcoming presidential elections, covers her face with his picture during a pre-election gathering at a stadium in Tehran June 9, 2009. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

[Editor's note: Today, GlobalPost begins rolling out extensive coverage — in words and pictures — of the 2009 Iranian presidential election. Read more about the carnival atmosphere in Tehran and the campaign's very own "Michelle Obama".]

The Iranian people turned on their TV sets June 3 to an extraordinary sight: a live debate between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the likeliest contender to take over his presidency, Mir-Hossein Mousavi.

If that spectacle — in a country that barely tolerates politics, let alone dissenting politicians — weren't enough, Ahmadinejad went as far as to admit that times were definitely changing.

“Never in the history of the Islamic Republic, has a government been so much criticized during its term and also in the election period,” the vexed president said. “What has happened in the past three months doesn’t make sense to me at all.” 

On June 12, the Iranians head to the polls to decide the next chapter in this complex and little-understood society of 72 million people. While Iran has held democratic elections every four years since the 1979 revolution that saw the Ayatollah Khomeini return from exile to lead the new Islamic Republic, Iranians have adhered to the dictates of a conservative religious regime.

Iran watchers agree that this election is one of the most crucial in the Islamic Republic's 30 years of existence. What is at stake is not only the political future of the hardline president, an ultra-conservative former mayor of Tehran who in 2005 beat Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in a run-off vote to become Iran's first non-cleric president for 24 years and whose hold on power hangs entirely on the Guardian Council. In Iran, the Guardian Council can veto would-be election candidates. In turn, the Supreme Leader — at present Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — not only appoints the head of the judiciary and military leaders, he selects six members of the Guardian Council.

Four years of President Ahmadinejad has not only brought about a deterioration in Iran's standing with the West, it has also brought about plummeting economy, high unemployment rates, and a lot of frustration. The cracks in his support — which comes mainly from poorer and more religious regions of Iran — are showing.

But whether or not Ahmadinejad wins this time around, the election has already brought change, beginning with a pre-election period in which opposition candidates are uncharacteristically outspoken young people — which make up a potentially huge electoral force in a country where 30 percent of the citizens are under 30 — are agitating for change and women are playing a bigger part than at any time since the revolution.

Talk of change

The robust dialogue of the election campaign says much about the changes taking place in the electorate. Rarely have Iranian presidential candidates so openly and directly criticized rivals. In a major departure from previous statements by Ahmadinejad, Mehdi Karroubi — a cleric who heads the moderate pro-reform National Trust Party, went as far as to say that speculating on the Holocaust would do no good to Iran.