TEHRAN — With record-breaking numbers of Iranians going to the polls Friday, this year’s presidential election has already earned a chapter in the story of the Islamic Republic. What remains to be seen is in which direction the voters will have steered the plot.

Friday’s forecast in Tehran bore decidedly mixed symbolism: a bright, breezy day followed by a dark and stormy night.

Polling centers throughout Tehran were confronted by larger than expected turnout, though the compositions of the crowds varied greatly throughout the city — from the chicly dressed youth in the upscale neighborhood of Fershteh, to the bearded men and chadored women of Ahmadinejad’s neighborhood of Narmak. Whatever their attire, voters had to endure long lines and extended exposure to Iran’s mid-summer heat.

For many of Friday’s voters — including a 91-year-old man and his 85-year-old wife who voted for Mir-Hossein Mousavi — it was the first time they bore the ink-stained fingers and stamped national identity cards that are the symbols of having voted in an Iranian election.

“I’m not a political person,” said Ashkan, a student voting in North Tehran. “But, this election has become about making a bigger statement.”

Indeed, the election has emerged as a referendum on the administration of the most polarizing president in the 30-year history of the Islamic Republic: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Overnight tallies will determine whether the hard-line incumbent will be awarded another four years, or whether his moderate challenger Mousavi — or, less likely, one of the two other eligible candidates — will earn a term in the country’s second most-powerful office.

If no one emerges with more than 50 percent of the vote, the country’s hard-fought campaign will continue for another week, as a run-off will be held between the top two vote-getters.

Mousavi, a mild-mannered architect who was prime minister of Iran during the 1980s, become the unlikely figurehead of a full-fledged social movement over the course of the campaign’s final weeks. Green clothing and banners — in reference to the Mousavi campaign’s official color — became ubiquitous in Iran’s cities in the weeks leading up to election. On Wednesday night, the last evening of campaigning, young people were chanting Mousavi’s name while dancing in the streets of Tehran. Stenciled portraits that graffiti artists had sprayed onto stretches of urban landscape were visible all of Thursday and Friday.

But, befitting the broad coalition he has assembled among elite policymakers from the country’s reformist and moderate conservative camps, Mousavi has avoided making provocative campaign pledges. With respect to economic policy, which has emerged as the election’s primary battleground, Mousavi has offered, rather than “change,” the uninspiring, but no less effective rallying cry of “competence.”

Mousavi has pilloried Ahmadinejad for his reckless economic management, blaming the sorry state of the Iranian economy — including the country’s 25 percent rate of inflation, endemic unemployment and squandered oil profits — on the president’s inability to consult and work with qualified experts. Mousavi has promised Iran, by contrast, a more “scientific” government, one that would cooperate with the national central bank and independent auditing bodies.


“Ahmadinejad has lied to us for four years,” said one voter in Narmak, Ahmadinejad’s neighborhood, who was upset about the economy. “It is time for someone who tells the truth.”

Many voters cited hopes that Mousavi would reverse the Ahmadinejad government’s belligerency towards the West and its crackdowns on social activists. Indeed, Mousavi spoke about increasing academic freedoms, eliminating harassment by morals police and improving Iran’s image in the world to counter the current president’s “dictatorial” policies. But, most voters acknowledged that any sudden change in policies might soon arouse conflict with entrenched, hard-line elements in the interior and intelligence ministries, as well as with the office of the Supreme Leader.

Mousavi seems content to settle for being a voice, rather than the decisive factor, in many of the country’s most contentious issues. Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki underscored the point on Friday.

“The principles of Iranian foreign policy are based on certain cornerstones and those are based on the revolution and the teachings of the Imam Khomeini,” said Mottaki at a polling station in northern Tehran. “That will all remain unchanged.”

The Mousavi campaign did bear one symbol of radical change — in the form of the candidate’s own wife, Zahra Rahnavard. Rahnavard, a popular and charismatic scholar and artist, took to the campaign trail with gusto. Through her impassioned speeches, she quickly became a symbol for increased rights and political clout for women.

On the night of Mousavi’s nationally televised debate with Ahmadinejad, the current president tried his best to make Rahnavard a symbol of something else: namely, corruption. In what came to be one of the campaign’s most scandalous moments, Ahmadinejad held up to the television camera an intelligence file with Rahnavard’s photo attached to it before accusing his challenger’s wife of academic violations in pursuit of her degrees.

It was one of a series of accusations that the incumbent made against the class of powerful elites that has run the country since the 1979 revolution, including former president Hashimi Rafsanjani.

Ahmadinejad’s rhetorical and sartorial opposition to the accumulated privileges of the Islamic Republic’s oligarchy has proven to be his greatest selling point with the lower-class voters who have proven to be his electoral base.

“He’s close to the people,” said Shahnaz Ilkhani, who is from Narmak. “And he does things for the provinces that the rich people here in Tehran don’t see and don’t care about.”

The fact that the rancorous campaign will produce only one winner means, of course, that a large number of voters will come away disappointed. But, government officials made sure to interpret the country’s evident interest in the election process and the record turnout as a sign of support for the establishment.

After voting at a polling station close to his home in southern Tehran, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei praised the voters and even the demonstrators. “I am hearing about a vast participation of people, and I hear there are even gatherings at night,” he said. “This shows people’s awareness.”

Though certainly motivated to express their minds at the ballot box, some voters were also plagued by fear of electoral fraud. More than a few indulged in conspiracy theorizing. “I brought my own pen,” said one voter in northern Tehran. “The ones they give out here use disappearing ink.”

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