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Iran candidates reach home stretch



TEHRAN, Iran -- Supporters of President Mohammad Khatami honked car horns and hung banners on the final day of Iran's election campaign.

Young women sporting headscarves in the Islamic white-and-green colour motif cheered "Yes to Khatami," as other supporters rallied with leaflets in a final push to sweep their moderate-cleric president back into office.

With campaigning banned in the final 24 hours before Friday's voting, Wednesday marked the last official clashing of political swords between Khatami and the nine mostly conservative challengers vying to unseat him.

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The incumbent ushered in a new era in Iranian politics when he won by a resounding margin of nearly 70 percent four years ago.

Then, his mainstay supporters were young people under 30 and women who viewed Khatami as their best hope for a reprieve -- however slight -- from the stringency of Islamic laws that govern all aspects of life in Iranian society.

But any mandate Khatami may have received in his first victory has been checked on the ground by an entrenched and hardline clerical establishment that has thwarted reform by jailing dissidents and shutting down publications seen as progressive.

The latest campaign, according to widespread reports, had been a lacklustre affair until Tuesday, when Khatami lashed out at religious hardliners at a rare news conference, branding them "cowards" bent on opposing the will of the people.

"I will not surrender to violence and extremism," Khatami said at the press conference, his first in years, Reuters reported.

Highly unscientific opinion polls suggest Khatami is headed for another landslide victory, though perhaps not of the same magnitude as his win four years ago.

Analysts say a strong showing on Friday could give Khatami a much-sought boost at a time when he finds himself engaged in a delicate political balancing act between hardline Islamic leaders on one side and more progressive Muslim clerics on the other.

While the clerics, by some reckonings, may be wary of sparking social unrest by cracking down too much on dissent, Khatami has acknowledged that he flouts the will of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, at his own peril.

Hardliners still dominate many of Iran's key institutions, including the army and judiciary, giving them the power to thwart reforms to which they object. A mandate for Khatami could embolden him to go on the offensive against the hardliners.

No 'surrender'

A month ago, Khatami seemed to possess little fighting spirit when he announced his plans to seek re-election.

But on Wednesday he was more buoyant on the campaign trail, a day after his vow not to surrender to the conservatives.

"It is not important who you vote for, it the political path that you choose which is important," Khatami said, addressing a meeting of bazaar merchants and union leaders in a mosque, Reuters reported.

"Any government that comes to power should create job opportunities for young people Investors play an important role in this. Investment security should prepare the grounds for investment to flourish."

Until now, Iran's tottering economy has been the trump card of opposition candidates, leaving Khatami to focus more on generic appeals to a more open Islamic society.

About three-quarters of Iran's population is under 30, and an estimated one million job seekers enter the market each year. Against the backdrop, unemployment -- officially said to hover around 15 percent, according to Reuters -- and poverty are seen as the biggest economic problems confronting the leaders.

Iran's parliament recently passed a law designed to lure more outside cash into the country, where inward international investment is among the lowest in the world save for the lynchpin oil sector, Reuters reported.

Khatami's intensified campaign appeals coincided with a stepped-up effort by his key rivals to draw last-minute votes.

Defence Minister Ali Shamkhani, considered the most prominent challenger, was scheduled to address a rally late Wednesday at Teheran's Shiroudi Stadium. Another rival, Ali Fallahian, a former spy boss who enjoys flimsy support, was campaigning in the northern provinces, according to Associated Press.

A former Labour minister, Ahmad Tavakoli, is projected by opinion polls to garner about 10 percent support.

In the capital itself, Khatami's boosters were out in force, with smiling photos of Khatami peeking out from cars that honked their support as they weaved through traffic.

A sign fluttering from a pedestrian overpass in Teheran trumpeted: "Khatami, you are in the hearts of the people."







RELATED STORIES:
RELATED SITES:
• Mohammad Khatami, President of Iran
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