(Reuters) – Iran’s supreme leader urged voters to turn in big numbers for a presidential election on Friday, saying such a show would frustrate Tehran’s enemies.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was speaking on the last day of a subdued campaign that has not produced a leading candidate from three main hardliners and one moderate.
The winner will replace Mahmoud Ahmadinejad but inherit an economy struggling with high unemployment and inflation, and buckling under the weight of international sanctions imposed over Iran’s disputed nuclear program.
The new president will also have little leeway to change major policies like Iran’s enrichment of uranium for nuclear fuel or its support for President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war. Both are decided by Khamenei.
“My insistence on the presence of the majority of people in the elections is because the strong presence of the Iranian nation will disappoint the enemy, make it reduce pressures and follow another path,” Khamenei said in a speech on Wednesday, reported by the ISNA news agency.
With 678 people who registered as candidates barred from standing in the election, the United States and the Israel – top of Iran’s list of enemies – have both criticized the event as being neither free nor fair.
Voters now have six candidates remaining to choose from – a slate dominated by conservatives who tout their loyalty to Khamenei and offer little in the way of real policy differences.
While there are no independent, reliable opinion polls on voting intentions in Iran, it is hard to gauge who will win.
Reformist leaders said the last presidential election in 2009 was rigged to return Ahmadinejad to office and many mainly middle-class, more liberal voters may fail to turn out this time in the belief the same thing could happen. Iranian authorities say all polls are open and democratic.
Moderates and reformists united on Tuesday behind centrist cleric Hassan Rohani, hoping to attract the vote of Iranians hoping for more freedoms and better relations with the West.
But conservatives appeared no closer on Wednesday to deciding on a unified candidate. Saeed Jalili, Iran’s hardline nuclear negotiator, is one favorite, but Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf and former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati are also strong contenders who could split the conservative vote.
Former Revolutionary Guards commander Mohsen Rezaie, seen as having only an outside chance of success, ruled out a coalition with any of his rivals on Wednesday, English-language Press TV said.
The editor of an influential hardline newspaper called for conservative “Principlists” to close ranks to ensure a win.
“Isn’t the presence of one Principlist candidate with many votes better than the scattering of votes among Principlists?” Hossein Shariatmadari wrote in the pages of Kayhan.
Wednesday is the last full day of campaigning.
“IMPRUDENCE AND EXTREMISM”
Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran’s centrist former president who was barred from standing last month by the Guardian Council, threw his weight behind Rohani on Tuesday, saying he was “more suitable to steer the executive branch”.
Rohani could benefit from a high turnout from young Iranians, women and the urban middle-class who powered a strong reformist campaign in 2009 that turned to protests after their now-imprisoned leaders said Ahmadinejad’s win was a fix.
But many reformist supporters are disillusioned and may choose instead to stay at home on Friday.
“People are not eager to go and vote themselves, but they are worried about who will get elected,” said Zoha, a 28-year-old dental student in Tehran.
“I will vote for Rohani. I will only vote because it might help prevent someone like Jalili getting elected,” she said. “He is a hardliner who will only take away our freedom even more.”
Rafsanjani, a veteran political heavyweight, said his candidacy had lit up the election race and excited Iranians but a senior security official had intervened to tell the Guardian Council to block him from standing.
Rafsanjani blamed Iran’s policy makers for exacerbating it’s diplomatic isolation and failing to prevent tighter sanctions.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran is in a dangerous situation and people must be placed in official positions who can understand the desires of the youth and return our country to its real position, not bring on more threats and sanctions from enemies through imprudence and extremism,” ISNA quoted Rafsanjani as saying.
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