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Polls close in Iran; big Khatami win projected

Mohammad Khatami
Khatami: size of his majority will determine speed of reforms  

TEHRAN, Iran (CNN) -- Strong turnout forced polls in Iran's presidential elections to stay open an extra five hours Friday as reformist President Mohammad Khatami sought a second term.

Khatami, 58, is widely favored to win a second term. Results are not expected until Sunday, but Iran's official news agency predicted he would receive 75 percent of the vote against a field of nine conservative and independent challengers.

Iran's Islamic Republic News Agency reported "overwhelming" turnout that forced election officials to extend polling three times. Observers estimated that about 70 percent of Iran's 42 million eligible voters would cast ballots.

Though scheduled to close at 7 p.m. (1430 GMT), election officials kept polls open until midnight because of high turnout.

The vote is effectively a referendum on Khatami's reform plans. CNN's Walter Rodgers reports on the president and his opposition (June 8)

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Khatami won 70 percent of the vote when he was elected in 1997. Observers said his percentage this time would signal whether he had a mandate for reformist policies so far obstructed by the clerics who effectively rule the country. Historically second-term presidents in Iran see their support slip.

To have a mandate for reform, Khatami's supporters have said he needs a landslide victory similar to the one he had in 1997.

"It's all about power and where it comes from -- clerics or the people," Political analyst Mohammad Hadi Semati told The Associated Press.

His opponents are mostly conservative former ministers, an academic, a lawyer, a doctor, and an admiral who have criticized Khatami's handling of the economy, viewed as a weak point of his administration. Iran is grappling with an inflation rate near 20 percent and an unemployment rate topping 16 percent.

Khatami's popular movement and the nation's Islamic overseers offer visions that seem difficult to reconcile and strike at the heart of how the country should be managed.

Khatami sees an "Islamic democracy" with room for some Western-inspired rights, fewer social restrictions and better contacts with the West. Conservatives have reacted harshly against changes they fear could erode their enormous influence over nearly every aspect of life.

Khatami, a mid-ranking Shi'ite cleric, has campaigned on a platform of reform, calling it "the will of the people." If re-elected, he said his first priority will be economic reform and job creation.

He also has argued the presidency does not have enough power: Under Iran's Islamic government, the president's powers are superseded by Iran's supreme spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

As a result, conservative clerics control judicial and military appointments. In the past two years, hard-liners have closed dozens of outspoken newspapers and magazines and have jailed journalists and activists through courts they control.

• Mohamad Khatami, President of Iran
• Presidency of Iran

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