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Iranians Head for Polls in Presidential Vote

Supporters of leading reformist candidate in Iran's presidential elections, Mostafa Moin, attend his campaign rally
Iranians vote Friday to elect a new president. Eight candidates are on the ballot to succeed outgoing president Mohammad Khatami. The presidential hopefuls are battling not only each other, but voter apathy about the political future.

A former police chief, an ex-president, and a one-time government minister are viewed as the top candidates to become Iran's next president. But they are battling considerable apathy among the electorate.

At a Tehran park, student Hamoon Mahdavi shrugs when asked about his preference, saying there was little difference among the candidates and he had no plans to vote.

Other people interviewed at random expressed similar sentiments of indifference and cynicism.

As if to underscore that apathy, newspapers and the candidates themselves constantly exhorted people to vote on Friday. Voter turnout will be key to establishing a clear winner, or pushing the race to a runoff between the top two vote-getters.

Former president and parliament speaker Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a conservative who now calls himself a "pragmatist", is considered a slight favorite, having the benefit of a strong organization and hefty campaign funding. But he must fend off challenges from Mostafa Moin, a favorite of the reform-minded who was originally barred from running, and Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a conservative who has tried to soften his image.

The cynicism is acute among supporters of greater openness, who saw their favorite, Mohammad Khatami, pull off an upset win in 1997 but then was repeatedly thwarted in attempts at democratic reforms by the conservative loyalists of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Jalal Shahin, 25, is the campaign manager for the Moin campaign in North Tehran. He says reformers were disappointed on how President Khatami was outmaneuvered.

"I think that Khatami was successful, especially in social, economic, and cultural matters. Of course, he wasn't successful in politics as much as we expected," he said.

The campaign was notable for its lack of the Islamic revolutionary rhetoric that has characterized past presidential and parliamentary races. But people complained they heard only vague promises about issues like unemployment and the economy, which they say are crucial.

This Tehran engineer, who did not want to be named, echoed a complaint heard by voters all over the world, the candidates make promises they will not keep.

If no candidate gets more than 50 percent to win outright, the runoff will be held one week later.