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Iran votes in record-breaking numbers

Country awaits results in election that has become a referendum on Iran's polarizing president.

Iranian women wait in line to cast their ballots at a polling station during the Iranian presidential election, in Tehran, June 12, 2009. (Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters)

TEHRAN — With record-breaking numbers of Iranians going to the polls Friday, this year’s presidential election has already earned a chapter in the story of the Islamic Republic. What remains to be seen is in which direction the voters will have steered the plot.

Friday’s forecast in Tehran bore decidedly mixed symbolism: a bright, breezy day followed by a dark and stormy night.

Polling centers throughout Tehran were confronted by larger than expected turnout, though the compositions of the crowds varied greatly throughout the city — from the chicly dressed youth in the upscale neighborhood of Fershteh, to the bearded men and chadored women of Ahmadinejad’s neighborhood of Narmak. Whatever their attire, voters had to endure long lines and extended exposure to Iran’s mid-summer heat.

For many of Friday’s voters — including a 91-year-old man and his 85-year-old wife who voted for Mir-Hossein Mousavi — it was the first time they bore the ink-stained fingers and stamped national identity cards that are the symbols of having voted in an Iranian election.

“I’m not a political person,” said Ashkan, a student voting in North Tehran. “But, this election has become about making a bigger statement.”

Indeed, the election has emerged as a referendum on the administration of the most polarizing president in the 30-year history of the Islamic Republic: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Overnight tallies will determine whether the hard-line incumbent will be awarded another four years, or whether his moderate challenger Mousavi — or, less likely, one of the two other eligible candidates — will earn a term in the country’s second most-powerful office.

If no one emerges with more than 50 percent of the vote, the country’s hard-fought campaign will continue for another week, as a run-off will be held between the top two vote-getters.

Mousavi, a mild-mannered architect who was prime minister of Iran during the 1980s, become the unlikely figurehead of a full-fledged social movement over the course of the campaign’s final weeks. Green clothing and banners — in reference to the Mousavi campaign’s official color — became ubiquitous in Iran’s cities in the weeks leading up to election. On Wednesday night, the last evening of campaigning, young people were chanting Mousavi’s name while dancing in the streets of Tehran. Stenciled portraits that graffiti artists had sprayed onto stretches of urban landscape were visible all of Thursday and Friday.

But, befitting the broad coalition he has assembled among elite policymakers from the country’s reformist and moderate conservative camps, Mousavi has avoided making provocative campaign pledges. With respect to economic policy, which has emerged as the election’s primary battleground, Mousavi has offered, rather than “change,” the uninspiring, but no less effective rallying cry of “competence.”

Mousavi has pilloried Ahmadinejad for his reckless economic management, blaming the sorry state of the Iranian economy — including the country’s 25 percent rate of inflation, endemic unemployment and squandered oil profits — on the president’s inability to consult and work with qualified experts. Mousavi has promised Iran, by contrast, a more “scientific” government, one that would cooperate with the national central bank and independent auditing bodies.