Presidential election in Iran
TOPLINE: Four years after winning the presidency in Iran, President Mohammad Khatami is standing for re-election against nine challengers and is the hot favourite to win Friday's poll. In 1997 he polled 70 percent of the vote and now seeks a mandate to speed up reform.
IN CONTEXT: Four years ago there was much world fervour over Khatami as his more moderate Islamic conservatism threatened to herald a new era in Tehran.
But the mild-mannered mid-ranking Shi'ite cleric, dubbed "the smiling face of the Islamic Republic," has proved no great catalyst for change.
Despite this, Khatami is campaigning firmly on a reform platform, and his aides are calling it a "referendum for reform."
"Reform cannot be stopped because its roots are in the will of the people," Khatami said when launching his campaign. "Freedom is as necessary as water."
His opponents are mostly conservative former ministers, an academic, a lawyer, a doctor and an admiral, though some analysts believe the leading conservative candidates are holding back for a challenge next time.
Opponents have focused on his handling of the economy, where he is seen as being weak.
Turnout will be crucial in the election, and Khatami's supporters have called for a high vote to demonstrate the popular will.
Last time Khatami won 20.1 million votes on a turnout of 29.1 million. But historically in Iran second-term presidents see their support slip.
Although the electorate has swelled to 42 million, analysts say he may not even win 15 million votes, especially with many of the young upset by the slow pace of change.
Khatami argues that the presidency has not enough real power -- his actions can be overruled by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and religious hard-liners control judicial and military appointments.
In the past two years hard-liners have closed 40 outspoken newspapers and magazines, jailed journalists and activists through courts they control and sent vigilantes to attack reformists.
Some of the president's leading ministers and officials have been impeached and jailed, and an architect of the reform programme was seriously wounded by gunmen.
Among Khatami's setbacks was the failure to move further after cultural and athletic exchanges with the U.S. were announced. Diplomatic relations are still severed.
Iran's Islamic leaders, who look to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as their guiding light, take an opposite view and say reforms betray the ideals of the Islamic revolution.
One hardline faction has sought to portray Khatami as a hapless puppet of the U.S., comparing him to former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and saying Khatami's policies will lead to the collapse of the Islamic republic.
The conservatives appear to be pinning their hopes on the possibility that Khatami will lose support, become a "lame duck" president and lose next time, or that he will be forced to make deals with the religious right.
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