, TEHRAN Jun 11 – Iran is gearing up for a fiercely-contested presidential election, with passions running high after a campaign of mass public rallies, stormy television debates and mudslinging.
Friday’s poll has emerged as a close race between front-runners Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the hardline incumbent, and moderate former premier Mir Hossein Mousavi, seeking a comeback after two decades in the political wilderness.
The campaign has highlighted deep differences in the Islamic republic after four years under Ahmadinejad, whose hardline rhetoric on the nuclear standoff and against Israel has isolated Iran from the West, while his expansionist economic policies have also come under fire at home.
Analysts are still hesitant to pick a winner, suggesting the vote may be a repeat of 2005 when a relatively unknown Ahmadinejad scored a stunning upset in a second-round run-off against heavyweight cleric Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
The campaign has witnessed massive street demonstrations and unprecedented public animosity among the candidates who have been hurling insults and allegations of lying and corruption at each other on prime time television.
At a final campaign rally on Wednesday, Ahmadinejad, who has frequently described the Holocaust as a myth, accused his rivals of using "tactics like Hitler" to whip up public opinion against him, the Fars news agency said.
On the streets, Iranians used the occasion to turn political rallies into night-time parties in a country that has little to offer in terms of nightlife during three decades of conservative clerical rule.
Running alongside Ahmadinejad and Mousavi are reformist former parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi and ex-head of the elite Revolutionary Guards Corps, Mohsen Rezai.
The campaign has highlighted the glaring divide in Iran with towns and villages passionately backing Ahmadinejad, while young men and women in big cities throwing their weight behind Mousavi, the former premier.
Mousavi, 67, has pledged to work to improve relations with the outside world, although there is doubt he will alter nuclear policy as all strategic decisions remain in the hands of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The election comes as the new US President Barack Obama has offered dialogue with Iran — dubbed part of the "axis of evil" by his predecessor George W. Bush – after three decades of severed ties.
Washington said it was closely watching the election but declined to speculate on the outcome.
Mousavi also complained that Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy has "undermined the dignity of Iran," and along with his fellow challengers, accused the incumbent of "mismanaging" the economy.
Iran, OPEC’s second biggest oil exporter, is currently battling rampant inflation of 24 percent and a slump in earnings from crude oil as international prices have sunk from close to 147 dollars last year.
But the incumbent too left no stone unturned in seeking to bolster his man-of-the-people image, accusing his rivals and their supporters of dishonesty and receiving financial privileges.
He also took aim at Mousavi’s high-profile wife Zahra Rahnavard by questioning the academic qualifications of the former university chancellor and artist who has been an outspoken campaigner for women’s rights.
"One thing is clear. Iran will never have television debates involving presidential candidates in the future. They just did not handle it with maturity," said one foreign diplomat based in Tehran.
Ahmadinejad’s outbursts even prompted Rafsanjani to protest to the supreme leader warning him of "social upheavals" if the incumbent was not reined in.
If the 52-year-old Ahmadinejad, a blacksmith’s son and former Tehran mayor defeated, it will be the first time a sitting president is ousted after serving just a single four-year term.
Polls open at 0330 GMT and may remain until midnight depending on turnout among the 46 million-strong electorate, with Iran’s election chief Kamran Daneshjoo forecasting a record number of voters.
Daneshjoo told voters – half of whom were born only after the 1979 Islamic revolution – to "act in a way that makes the friends of the revolution happy and not the enemies (the United States)," according to the ISNA news agency.
Results are expected within 24 hours after voting ends. A runoff will be held on June 19 if no single candidate emerges with 50 percent plus one vote on Friday.
The overall campaign generally passed off peacefully across most of Iran, although the southeastern city of Zahedan was hit by unrest that saw 25 people killed in a Shiite mosque bombing, and another 10 in ensuing sectarian clashes.