TEHRAN, Iran — Reformist President Mohammad Khatami headed for a landslide victory in Iran Saturday, a widely expected result that would lend powerful support to his drive to bring more freedoms to the Islamic nation, according to early voting results.
Final results in Friday’s balloting from at least six voting districts and one province showed Khatami with vote tallies ranging from 75 percent to 95 percent, according to the government-run Islamic Republic News Agency.
The vote, which was expected to continue it lopsided trend, will give Khatami a mandate to push forward with his challenge to the controls of Iran’s conservative clerics and their tight grip on power.
The results reported by IRNA came from the final count in polling districts inside towns and cities in southeastern and northeastern Iran. In addition, the agency also said Khatami received between 88 percent and 93 percent of thousands of votes from Iranians who cast ballots abroad.
Illam Province in western Iran gave Khatami 80 percent of the vote, according to officials at the Interior Ministry who spoke on condition of anonymity. They added Qasr-e-Shirin, a town on the Iraqi border, went nearly 90 percent for Khatami.
Khatami faced nine challengers who ranged from hard-liners to those seeking to fight corruption and improve the economy.
Ahmad Tavakoli was running a distant second – with tallies ranging from 2 percent to 18 percent in the six districts and one province, according to IRNA. Tavakoli, an economist, had campaigned on pledges to improve the economy.
Interior Ministry sources predicted that turnout from Friday’s election would surpass 70 percent – or 30 million of the 42.1 million Iranians who have reached the voting age of 16.
In 1997, Khatami received nearly about 20 million votes, or 70 percent of those cast, en route to defeating a conservative opponent.
Now, the real test begins for Khatami.
Two potent forces – 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.
Khatami 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.
But it’s unclear how far and fast can he integrate concepts of openness in a nation built upon the uncompromising values of an Islamic revolution 22 years ago.
For reformists, the backdrop of the election was deeply symbolic and worrisome. Prominent activists and journalists languish in jail and dozens of publications remain banned.
“It’s all about power and where it comes from – clerics or the people,” said a political analyst, Mohammad Hadi Semati.
From sweltering Tehran neighborhoods to isolated mountain hamlets, more than 45,000 polling stations were set up. Helicopters carried ballot boxes to the most remote villages. Guards were given voting material for jailed dissidents and other prisoners, the Interior Ministry said.
Voting tents were erected in desert outposts or in cemeteries for those taking part in the Friday ritual of visiting family graves.
The most senior dissident cleric, Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, voted from his house arrest quarters in the holy city of Qom, the nation’s center of Islamic study.
“Democracy and freedom have not been implemented,” Montazeri wrote in a communique sent to The Associated Press.
Also at stake were 16 parliament seats and two seats on the panel that elects the supreme leader.
The wild card is Khatami’s huge popularity, which has clearly shaken up the political status quo.
“This vote should convince the unpopular hard-liners to stop standing against the people’s wishes,” said a Khatami supporter in Tehran, 18-year-old Hussein Dadi.
Young women wearing makeup and brightly colored head scarves — a sign of the easing social rules under Khatami — came to watch him vote.
“We love you,” they chanted to Khatami, a 58-year-old, mid-ranking cleric who once served as culture minister.
Young people represent the bedrock of Khatami’s support and form an awesome front. 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.
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