TEHRAN, Iran — Iranian news media Saturday morning reported a huge, unexpected election victory for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, giving him nearly two-thirds of the vote, far above challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi.
With about 29.6 million votes counted -- more than 90 per cent of those cast -- Ahmadinejad was leading with 19.7 million votes, or about 66.5 percent, to Mousavi's 9.8 million votes, about 33 percent.
The reported result is bound to prompt charges of a stolen election from supporters of Mousavi and other opponents of Ahmadinejad.
Mousavi, a former prime minister, said in a Friday evening press conference that he had won, and he charged that there were a number of election irregularities.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
The competing claims raised the stakes further in an unprecedented contest that's polarized the country.
Iranian citizens — new voters, rare voters and reliable voters — flocked to the polls as they opened Friday morning, men and women waiting in separate lines outside Tehran polling stations for an hour or more to vote. Polls had been scheduled to close at 6 p.m. local time, but voting hours were extended until midnight.
The election has mesmerized the nation, exposed deep class divides in Iranian society and at times indirectly touched on the country's tightly-run theocracy. It has already widened — at least temporarily — the space for political debate in Iran and raised hopes in the U.S. of an eventual U.S.-Iranian dialogue along the lines suggested by President Barack Obama, although its effect on Iranian policies remains to be seen.
In Washington, Obama said he was "excited" to see the "robust debate" in Iran and thought this would give a boost to U.S. aims to resolve differences with Iran diplomatically. "We think there' s the possibility of change," he told reporters. "Ultilmately, the election is for the Iranians to decide. But you're seeing people looking at new possibilities."
Habibe Abadi, a 46-year-old university professor, said she hadn't been to the polls in nearly 30 years, since Iran's Islamic revolution was young — so long ago, in fact, that she couldn't remember the year. On Friday, she waited along with throngs of others to slip her voting paper into a large plastic ballot box at Tehran's landmark Hosseini Ershad mosque.
"Mousavi. . . . only Mousavi," Abadi said emphatically of her choice. At 6:30 p.m., a half-hour after polls were to close, men and women still waited in lines to vote at polling stations in central Tehran, and authorities several times announced extensions of voting hours.
With tensions running high, Mousavi's advisers complained of what they said were several suspicious developments. Cell phone text messages, a ubiquitous form of communication among young urbanites in Iran, couldn't be sent on Friday.
Rumors spread that pens provided at polling stations were filled with disappearing ink, and partisans of Mousavi and reformist cleric Mahdi Karroubi urged one another to bring their own writing instruments. In Iran, voters write in the names of their candidates of choice.
Some of the reports couldn't be independently verified, and Interior Minister Sadeq Mahsouli disputed that there were problems. "The enemies of our nation were trying to decrease the participation of the people by spreading rumors that the election is not healthy," Mahsouli said, according to the quasi-official Mehr news agency.
Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, who holds ultimate power in Iran, especially over security and foreign policy matters, urged voters: "Don't pay attention to the rumors," as he cast his ballot in front of television cameras.
Overall, the mood at polling places seemed buoyant, expectant and intensely patriotic.
Obama's outreach to Iran wasn't the dominant topic for voters, but even some Ahmadinejad supporters said the U.S. president's words, particularly his videotaped message to Iran on the New Year holiday of Nowruz, struck a chord.
"That message on Nowruz has lots of influence on Iranian people's minds," said Ebraheime Salehvand, 18, who voted for the incumbent in the western Tehran district of Falakey Sadeqiyeh.
Supporters of Mousavi — who's more a moderate than a reformist — calculated that a high turnout would be good news for the opposition candidate.
Yet Ahmadinejad retains formidable support among Iran's lower classes, who've benefited from his populist wealth-distribution programs, as well as from traditionalists and Iran's huge security establishment.
In the Narmak section of eastern Tehran, an Ahmadinejad stronghold, a random sampling of those who'd cast votes found 100 percent support for the incumbent.
Would Mousavi prevail? "I don't think so," said 87-year-old Ahmad Radmadnaesh, after marking his ballot paper with a pen decorated in the design of the U.S. flag.
Radmadnaesh estimated the throngs of voters at his polling station to be double those of the last presidential election in 2005. "It doesn't matter for me who wins the election," he said. "They should manage the country properly. That's the point."
Mirzaie Atefeh, voting for the first time at age 18, called Ahmadinejad "fearless" for his revelations of alleged corruption among Iran's political elite. "He lives with the common people," said Atefeh, whose bright blue head scarf peeked out from beneath her black chador.
The race has become a national referendum on the divisive Ahmadinejad, who's being challenged by Mousavi, Karroubi and former Islamic Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezaie. If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff between the top two vote getters will be held on June 19.
While frequently labeled a reformer, Mousavi is a decades-old veteran of Iran's political establishment. He advocates trying to repair relations with the U.S., although he will have to move cautiously under Khamanei's tutelage if elected, and economic liberalization.
The question now being debated by analysts, journalists and Western diplomats here is whether the campaign has brought about a permanent course correction for Iran, no matter who's elected.
It's unleashed sharp, personal public debate among Iran's ruling elite, coupled with frenzied street rallies, notably by young Mousavi supporters who draped themselves in his green campaign colors — of a type not seen in recent Iranian history.
Ahmadinejad, who's denied the Holocaust and challenged the U.S. at every turn, could prove to be more moderate if he wins a second term, particularly if the election is close, some diplomats predict.
Even some Ahmadinejad supporters say they'd like him to repair ties with the U.S., which Washington severed shortly after the November 1979 student takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
Salehvand, the young man who voted to keep Ahmadinejad in power, wore a bright yellow T-shirt, jeans and a checkered scarf of the kind that signifies solidarity with the Palestinian people and opposition to Israel, the closest U.S. ally in the Middle East. However, he said he wants ties with the U.S.
"Certainly in the next four years, Mr. Ahmadinejad has a plan to have a change in our relations with the West, especially the United States," he said.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY'Reformer' is relative for Iranian election challenger Iran's election becomes a referendum on Ahmadinejad Obama given some credit for Lebanon vote's moderate turn Al Qaida plays key role on both sides of Pakistan-Afghan border Iran expands uranium efforts, is blocking monitoring Experts and ordinary people react to Obama's speech Follow national-security news at McClatchy's Nukes & Spooks