As Iran counts the ballots from its presidential election, moderate cleric Hassan Rowhani leads with just over half of the vote. The electorate turned out to the polls in high numbers.
Rowhani, a former nuclear negotiator, has over 50 percent of the more than 20 million ballots counted so far. His nearest challenger, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, has tallied about 15 percent, and four other candidates trail more distantly, with between 1 and 11 percent of the total. Rowhani needs 50 percent to avoid a two-person runoff next Friday.
"Long live reforms," attendees had cried at Rowhani's last rally before Friday's election, reflecting hopes that the race's lone remaining moderate would lead the nation after two terms of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Supporters called for the release of political prisoners, including the opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi, both candidates in 2009's disputed election, which led to waves of protests and brutal crackdowns.
Vote counting continued early on Saturday as Iranians waited to find out who would replace the outgoing president. Elections officials had earlier estimated that over 70 percent of the more than 50 million eligible voters had turned out to cast their ballots.
Significant, not conclusive
Voters waited for hours in wilting heat at some polling stations in Tehran and other cities; others cast ballots from desert outposts, Gulf seaports and nomad pastures. Iranians also had their say in Dubai, London, the United States and elsewhere.
Election officials have not estimated when they will release the final count after they extended voting by five hours to meet demand. The strong estimated turnout suggests that liberals and others abandoned a planned boycott.
Rowhani has led the influential Supreme National Security Council and became a nuclear envoy in 2003, a year after Iran's 20-year-old atomic program was revealed.
Until a moderate rival of Rowhani's bowed out just before the election, the reformist had seemed overshadowed by Saeed Jalili and Qalibaf, candidates with far deeper ties to the current power structure, but now, even combined, unable to match the frontrunner's total.
All six candidates issued a joint appeal for calm in light of 2009's postelection unrest.
mkg/lw (Reuters, AFP, AP)