Hardline mayor wins Iran election in landslide
By Parisa Hafezi
TEHRAN (Reuters) - Ultra-conservative Tehran mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad swept to a landslide win in presidential elections on Saturday, spelling a possible end to Iran's fragile social reforms and tentative rapprochement with the West. Ahmadinejad, 48, won the backing of the religious poor to defeat veteran political heavyweight Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was supported by pro-reform parties and wealthy Iranians fearful of a hardline monopoly on power in the Islamic state. "The figures show that Ahmadinejad is the winner," Interior Ministry spokesman Jahanbakhsh Khanjani told reporters. He will be Iran's first non-cleric president for 24 years when he takes office in August.
An official at the Guardian Council, which must approve the election results, said that out of 24.8 million votes counted, Ahmadinejad had 61.7 percent, defying forecasts of a tight race.
Officials said turnout was about 26 million, or 56 percent, down from the 63 percent of Iran's 46.7 million eligible voters who cast ballots in an inconclusive first round on June 17.
"It's over, we accept that we've lost," said a close aide to Rafsanjani, who was president from 1989 to 1997.
MODERATING INFLUENCE GONE
Although Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the last word on all matters of state, a hardline presidency removes the moderating influence on decision-making exercised by outgoing reformist President Mohammad Khatami since 1997.
"This all but closes the door for a breakthrough in U.S.-Iran relations," said Karim Sadjadpour, Tehran-based analyst for the International Crisis Group.
Washington broke ties with Iran in 1980 and now accuses it of developing nuclear weapons and supporting terrorism. Iran, the world's fourth-largest oil producer, denies the charges.
"I think Ahmadinejad is less amenable to compromise on the nuclear issue, but it is unclear how much influence he will have on it," said Sadjadpour.
The result was a crushing blow to Rafsanjani, 70, who has been at the forefront of Iranian politics since the 1979 Islamic revolution and was widely considered Iran's second most powerful figure before the vote. His last venture to the polls in 2000 parliamentary elections also ended in failure.
"Today is the beginning of a new political era," Ahmadinejad said after voting on Friday.
His victory was the latest by a new breed of hardline politicians, many of them former Revolutionary Guardsmen, who won local council and parliamentary elections in 2003 and 2004 amid widespread disillusionment with the slow pace of reform.
Friday's vote exposed deep class divisions in the nation of 67 million people.
A former member of the special forces of Iran's hardline Revolutionary Guards, Ahmadinejad's humble lifestyle and pledges to tackle corruption and redistribute the country's oil wealth appealed to the urban and rural religious poor.
"I vote for Ahmadinejad because he wants to cut the hands of those who are stealing the national wealth and he wants to fight poverty," said Rahmatollah Izadpanah, 41.
Rafsanjani voters had said they feared Ahmadinejad would reverse modest reforms made under Khatami that allow women to dress in brighter, skimpier clothes and couples to fraternise in public without fear of arrest.
Washington repeated accusations that the vote was unfair due to the disqualification of more than 1,000 hopeful candidates.
"We remain skeptical that the Iranian regime is interested in addressing either the legitimate desires of its own people or the concerns of the broader international community," said a State Department spokeswoman.
Supreme Leader Khamenei banned victory celebrations after a fractious campaign marred by allegations of dirty tricks.
Aides to Rafsanjani had accused the hardline Basij militia of intimidating voters to back Ahmadinejad. The Interior Ministry also complained of illegal election-day campaigning.