Iran's Khatami likely to win landslide victory
Vote signals support for his reformist policies
TEHRAN, Iran (CNN) -- Iranian President Mohammad Khatami was holding an overwhelming lead in his re-election bid, according to preliminary election results released Saturday.
With 20 million votes counted, Khatami had 77.4 percent.
Officials estimated turnout was high in Friday's vote, with as many as 35 million people -- or about 83 percent of the country's eligible voters -- casting ballots. That percentage is the same as the election four years ago, when Khatami was swept to power.
Although final results are not expected until Sunday, Khatami, 58, was widely favored to win a second term against a field of nine conservative and independent challengers.
Khatami's supporters had said high turnout would be crucial in order to give him a mandate for reform. Historically in Iran, second-term presidents have seen their support slip.
The results reported by IRNA came from the final count in polling districts in towns and cities in southeastern and northeastern Iran.
The agency adds that Khatami received between 88 percent and 93 percent of thousands of votes from Iranians who cast votes abroad.
The overwhelming turnout forced polling stations to stay open an extra five hours until midnight Friday.
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.
"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.
Ahmad Tavakoli was running a distant second -- with tallies ranging from 2 percent to 18 in six districts and one town, according to IRNA.
Tavakoli, an economist, had campaigned on pledges to improve the economy.
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.
He 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.
"This vote should convince the unpopular hard-liners to stop standing against the people's wishes," 18-year-old Hussein Dadi, a Khatami supporter told The Associate Press.
Young people represent the bedrock of Khatami's support. About 60 percent of Iran's 62 million people are under 25 years old -- too young to have direct connection with the revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed monarchy.
Other backers believe Khatami should redirect his attention to trying to rescue the nation's stumbling oil-dependent economy with an inflation rate near 20 percent and growing unemployment rate topping 16 percent.
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 would 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.
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