Voters turned out in high numbers yesterday as Iran went to the polls in the most unpredictable election since the 1979 revolution.
The result will probably not be available until today, but early indications suggested that the former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani will have to face another ballot against the second-placed candidate.
Reformists were confident that their candidate, Mostafa Moin, would reach the second round, buoyed by the reports of a high turnout and a strong late challenge from the hardline Tehran mayor, Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, which threatened to split the conservative vote. The run-off will take place next Friday, or the week after.
If the turnout is more than about 60 per cent, regime supporters will interpret it as a boost to the Islamic republic's legitimacy in the face of external criticism and domestic divisions over the country's direction.
Ahmad Salek, a mullah from Isfahan, outside the shrine of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of the revolution, said: "It's important to vote to preserve the sacred Islamic system and combat the heavy attack by our enemies."
The US President George Bush on Thursday condemned the elections as ignoring "the basic requirements of democracy". A Tehran voter critical of the regime sarcastically responded: "Oh, right; so we won't vote now."
Inside the Khomeini shrine, Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf, a self-proclaimed fundamentalist competing for the hardliner vote with Mr Ahmadi-Nejad, was casting his vote. "I have come here to vote and pay my respects to the imam and the war martyrs," he said.
Zahra Hadipour, 22, a seminary student at nearby Qom, said she had voted for Mr Qalibaf, a former police chief, because he would "support religion and defend the borders".
Support for Mr Qalibaf has apparently slipped in recent days, however, with voters swaying towards the Tehran mayor, whose "ordinary man" appeal has been contrasted favourably with Mr Qalibaf's more stylised look.
Mohammed Baqer Rasooli, a retirement-age government employee, said: "More of my neighbours have switched to Ahmadi-Nejad now. He is the only candidate who hasn't failed in office."
Some Iranians said that they had only decided to participate in recent days, despite a boycott call by some reformers who are disillusioned with a system run by unelected clerics.
A woman at Khomeini's shrine said she came from Shiraz intending not to participate in the election, but a fellow visitor had persuaded her to vote for the reformist Mr Moin.
Others changed their minds as the race became more competitive. "I based my judgment on opinion polls and when I realised Moin had a chance, I switched my vote from Rafsanjani," said Noureddin, a 35-year-old technical engineer, emerging from the Naziabad polling station with his wife and two small daughters. "We must strengthen the foundations of democracy."
He was one of many voters to name the crisis over Iran's nuclear ambitions as an important part of their choice. Most reiterated what they saw as Iran's right to full, civilian uranium enrichment technology, which Western countries believe will help Iran to build a bomb.
More voters believed that Mr Rafsanjani's former experience as president would help him to strike a better deal for the country while improving relations with the West. "It must be Rafsanjani 100 per cent," said an insurance management student, Farhad Pirouzian, from the working-class Naziabad. "He's a politician at the international level and has an eye to the future."
The favourite can also count on strong support in the countryside, where traditionalist voters tend to select more familiar names. "We want someone who is devoted to God and wants only what God wants. What more could we wish for?" asked the elderly Mohamad Hasanli, who was selling freshly picked fruit and vegetables in his village shop. "Rafsanjani is the one."
Adoran village has almost been swallowed up by the slums and industrial areas ballooning south and west from the capital. Residents say that it was once a rural paradise of rich orchards, but it has become parched as thirsty Tehran depleted the water table. Residents here still say it is their duty to vote, but they do not believe the choice of president will have a direct impact on their daily lives.
"I don't really know who's good or bad but I'll vote anyway," said 60-year-old Malak Tajik with a chuckle. She was on her way to visit a daughter, who has recently been divorced from a heroin addict, a now common scourge among poorer Iranians. Mrs Tajik said she would only go to vote if her daughter went too, but would probably not bother in a second round.Reuse content