x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Ahmadinejad ahead but Mousavi holds firm

Both Mir Hossein Mousavi and the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claim victory in Iran's presidential election after near-record numbers fill polling stations.

TEHRAN // From the working class suburbs of Tehran to consulates in Dubai, Iraq and London, Iranians turned out in near-record numbers yesterday to vote for a new president, with the two main challengers, the reformist Mir Hossein Mousavi and the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, both claiming victory. This morning Mr Ahmadinejad had won 65 per cent of the vote against more than 32 per cent for war-time premier Mr Mousavi, with almost 90 per cent of ballot boxes counted, according to the election commission chief Kamran Daneshjoo. "Doctor Ahmadinejad, by getting a majority of the votes, has become the definite winner of the 10th presidential election," the state news agency IRNA declared as his jubilant supporters took to the streets in celebration. However, Mr Mousavi - who pledged to improve relations with the outside world during the most heated election campaign since the Islamic revolution - also declared himself the victor, suggesting a tense battle lay ahead. Turnout was huge, rivalling that of the record number of voters who brought the reformist candidate Mohammad Khatami to power in 1997. "All my friends and I are voting for Mousavi, for change," said Ahmad, 21, who works in a car wash, as he waited in a queue to cast his ballot in the capital, Tehran. "It's what all young people here are doing." In the Emirates, which is home to the second-largest Iranian community abroad after the United States, thousands packed the consulate in Dubai. The election has been closely watched by the international community, who are hoping that a regime change will bring about better relations with the Islamic republic, which have suffered under the leadership of the hardline Mr Ahmadinejad. US President Barack Obama said he thought there was a real "possibility of change". Although official results will not be announced until today, Mr Mousavi called a press conference within minutes of polling booths closing to declare he was the outright victor. "In line with the information we have received, I am the winner of this election by a substantial margin," Mr Mousavi told reporters. Earlier, an aide had told Agence France-Presse that the former prime minister had taken 65 per cent of the vote. Earlier claims by Mr Mousavi's team that they had won the election were dismissed by advisers of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the incumbent who is seeking a second four-year term. Ali Akbar Javanfekr said the vote was impossible to predict: "This is a psychological war they launched to influence voting." Mr Javanfekr then said Mr Ahmadinejad was leading the polls. Surprisingly high numbers of people turned out to vote, with polling stations staying open an extra four hours and some running out of voting cards. Sadegh Mahsouli, the interior minister, was quoted by the semi-official Mehr News Agency as saying that 70 per cent of the 46.2 million eligible voters had cast their ballots, but some observers believed it was nearer to 80 per cent, which would equal the record turnout in 1997 when Mohammad Khatami swept to power. "Turnout is definitely higher than in the previous elections and the urge to vote can be seem among all classes of the society. Participation can be even as high as 80 per cent," said Mohammed Atrianfar, a member of the central council of the reformist Servants of Construction Party - also known as Kargozaran. The party has been backing Mr Mousavi, a former prime minister who has pledged better ties with the outside world. "We expect Mr Mousavi to win with 60 per cent of the vote in the first round," he said. The US president, Barack Obama, who has called for dialogue with Iran after three decades of severed ties, said yesterday he saw the "possibility of change". Many Iranians have blamed Mr Ahmadinejad for the country's dire economic situation and growing isolation within the international community, and see Mr Mousavi as a chance for change. Even before polling stations opened at 8am, people were queuing up outside with some waiting up to four hours before they could vote. In Tehran, queues were noticeably longer in the middle- and upper-class districts, where in previous elections turnout had been low. "I used to abstain from voting, but today I want to put my right to vote to good use so it is OK to stand in the queue even if it takes several hours," said Nazila Azimi, 38, a civil servant at a polling station in western Tehran. In the southern Tehran districts of Yaghchiabad and Naziabad, both traditional Ahmadinejad strongholds, turnout was high but many said they were no longer backing Mr Ahmadinejad. "All my friends and I are voting for Mousavi, for change. It's what all young people here are doing," said Ahmad, 21, who works in a car wash and is from the northwestern province of Azarbaijan. Polls were scheduled to close at 6pm but kept open until 11pm as thousands of people were still waiting to vote. After the interior ministry announces the results tomorrow, they still need to be confirmed by the election watchdog, the Guardian Council. If no single candidate wins more than 50 per cent of the vote, then a second round will be held on June 19. However, a poll carried out by the Shahab News website at 8am yesterday pointed to an outright victory for Mr Mousavi. Some 68.3 per cent of the respondents said that they would vote for Mr Mousavi against 17.8 per cent for Mr Ahmadinejad, 3.8 per cent for Mehdi Karrubi and 2.5 per cent for Mohsen Rezai, a former Revolutionary Guard leader. Mr Mousavi, accompanied by his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, cast his vote at a mosque in Shahre Ray, a working-class part of southern Tehran. He also expressed his concern about election irregularities, saying some of his representatives had been denied access to voting stations and complained that the mobile text messaging network had been down since Thursday night. A campaign office for Mr Mousavi also was attacked late yesterday with tear gas by supporters of the president. msinaiee@thenational.ae *with AFP