, TEHRAN, June 13 – Hardline incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was heading for a resounding win in Iran’s fiercely-contested presidential race, official results showed on Saturday, in a major upset for his moderate rival.
"Doctor Ahmadinejad, by getting a majority of the votes, has become the definite winner of the 10th presidential election," state news agency IRNA declared as his jubilant supporters took to the streets in celebration.
However, his main challenger Mir Hossein 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.
Ahmadinejad won 65 percent of the vote against almost 33 percent for war-time premier Mousavi, with almost 90 percent of ballot boxes counted, said election commission chief Kamran Daneshjoo, highlighting the massive turnout.
Mousavi, who was aiming for a political comeback on a groundswell of support among the nation’s youth, complained of irregularities in the vote, including a shortage of ballot papers and attacks on his campaign offices.
"In line with the information we have received, I am the winner of this election by a substantial margin," he told a news conference.
But as the official results showed 52-year-old Ahmadinejad would be back for a second term, his supporters began pouring on to the streets of Tehran, honking their horns and waving Iranian flags.
"Where are the greens? — in a mousehole," Ahmadinejad’s supporters mocked, referring to the campaign colours of Mousavi, whose supporters thronged the streets in mass rallies during the campaign.
"I am happy that my candidate has won — he helps the poor and he catches the thieves," said sandwich seller Kamra Mohammadi, 22.
The election underscored deep divisions in Iran after four years under Ahmadinejad, whose firebrand rhetoric isolated the country from the West while at home he came under fire over his economic policies.
Passions ran high during the campaign, with Ahmadinejad and his challengers hurling insults at each other in acrimonious live television debates while their supporters staged massive carnival-like street rallies.
Ahmadinejad, portraying himself as a man of the people, pledged to stamp out corruption and help the poor while his rivals accused him of mismanaging the economy of one of the world’s top oil producers and damaging the nation’s international standing.
The election was a clear a two-horse race, with results showing that former Revolutionary Guards chief Mohsen Rezai came a distant third with 2.5 percent of the vote and ex-parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi fourth with less than one percent.
Ahmadinejad’s campaign manager Mojtaba Samareh Hachemi dismissed the rival camp’s claim of victory, insisting the incumbent remained "the president of all Iranians."
"According to the votes counted so far, the distance between Ahmadinejad and his rivals is so great that any doubts cast on this victory will be treated as a joke by the public," he was quoted by the Fars news agency as saying.
Officials highlighted what they said was unprecedented turnout among the 46.2 million electorate, with long queues forming at polling stations across the country.
"With the way it is going, the votes will top 36 million which is between 75 to 82 percent (turnout) which I imagine is a record," Daneshjoo said, adding that final results were expected at 0530 GMT.
US President Barack Obama, who has called for dialogue with Iran after three decades of severed ties, said he saw the "possibility of change" in relations with the Islamic republic.
"Whoever ends up winning the election in Iran, the fact that there’s been a robust debate hopefully will help advance our ability to engage them in new ways," Obama said.
Under Ahmadinejad, Iran has been at loggerheads with the West as he delivered a succession of fiery tirades against Israel, repeatedly questioned the Holocaust and defiantly vowed to press on with the country’s nuclear drive.
Even if 67-year-old Mousavi had won, it was doubtful there would be any major shift in Iran’s nuclear and foreign policy as all decisions on matters of state rest in the hands of all-powerful supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
In the United States, home to the largest Iranian expatriate population, opponents of the regime condemned the election as a "sham."
The vote has nevertheless highlighted a call for change after 30 years of clerical rule in a country where 60 percent of the population was born after the revolution.
The economy was a key election issue, with the country battling inflation at 24 percent, rising unemployment and plunging income from crude oil exports.
While young men and women in big cities threw their weight behind Mousavi, who had also pledged to ease restrictions particularly on women, Ahmadinejad drew passionate support from rural towns and villages.