Iran awaits verdict on Khatami
TEHRAN, Iran (CNN) -- Voters go to the polls in Iran on Friday with all indications Mohammad Khatami will win re-election by another landslide.
The size of his majority -- he won almost 70 percent of the vote last time -- was seen as being the most important outcome.
An increase in his vote would be seen as a mandate for introducing the reform programme so far stalled by Islamic militants -- his supporters calling the poll a "referendum on reform."
"We think the vote will be more than last time -- both in percentage terms and in the turnout," Mohsen Mirdamadi, a senior parliamentarian in the pro-Khatami Islamic Iran Participation Front said.
"If Mr Khatami's vote is higher despite all the difficulties of the last two or three years, it means people want to follow his path. Pressure from the people and their massive support can change things over the next six months," Mirdamadi said.
There were reports of some violent clashes, but otherwise Iran came to an uneasy calm on Thursday after authorities called a halt to the 19-day official campaign to allow a 24-hour "reflection period" before the polls opened.
Thousands of Khatami supporters had earlier thronged the streets of Tehran -- prompting the conservative-led Guardians Council to complain about the campaign.
They said it was "encouraging young people and adolescents to take part in protests".
The last few days were seen to be crucial and Khatami, who has campaigned on a platform of "moderation" and curbing unemployment, made a last-ditch appeal to youth voters.
Hundreds of young people plastered Tehran late into the night with Khatami posters, leaflets and bumper stickers in a drive to bring out the youth vote.
Khatami's campaign staff said they believed a late swing particularly among the young could yield an even bigger victory than last time. The electorate is of 42.1 million voters aged 15 and over.
Khatami, who is bidding for a second term, came to power in 1997 in a surprise victory over the conservative establishment candidate.
But promised political and social reforms have been slow to materialise, with conservative forces installed by the 1979 Islamic revolution hitting back over the last two years.
They have closed pro-reform newspapers, arrested dozens of political dissidents, liberal clerics and journalists, and maintain key control of the media and the judiciary.
Khatami himself called his confrontation with hardline clerics and their vast influence on everyday life in Iran his "tunnel of crisis."
The figure where Khatami would be seen to have the legitimacy to press ahead with reforms was being put at 20 million votes, his total last time.
He faces nine opponents, almost all of them hardline conservatives.
CNN's Walter Rodgers says: "The other nine may just be trying to position themselves to run four years from now when Khatami cannot run again."
The Guardian Council vetoed all but 10 of the 814 candidates who registered last month. Ironically, that has helped Khatami by eliminating any left-wing or liberal challenger.
One view is that the big hitters among the hardliners are biding their time for the next contest, hoping Khatami will be wounded by a low turnout this time and frustrated in his ability to govern.
Second in the polls Ahmad Tavakoli, a former revolutionary prosecutor and labour minister, has promised a clean-up of corruption in government and a more liberal economy.
But opinion polls show that despite dissatisfaction over unemployment and poverty, voters still trust Khatami more than his opponents.
U.S. opinion pollsters Zogby International, in a survey taken last week for Abu Dhabi television, forecast a comfortable win for Khatami with 75 percent of the vote.
Khatami's closest challenger, former Labour Minister Ahmad Tavakoli, was trailing far behind with 11 percent.
Some 37,000 polling stations were due to be open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. (0430-1430 GMT) on Friday, but the hours were subject to extension depending on the turnout.
Counting was beginning immediately after voting ended but final results were not being released until Sunday.
The presidential candidates require 50 percent of the vote plus one to win outright and avoid a run-off.
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