Iranians went to the polls Friday in a hotly contested presidential election that has seemingly narrowed down to a tight race between conservative incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the leading reformist candidate, former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi. The presidential election follows a highly charged campaign featuring massive public rallies, spirited television debates and a large degree of public animosity among four candidates seeking the presidency.
Long lines formed at polling stations across the country as millions of Iranians voted Friday.
Election officials say a record turnout is predicted among Iran's 46 million eligible voters. Many were enthusiastic about the race and didn't mind waiting to cast their ballots.
"These elections are a great thing for the Iranian people, we have people who have not participated in elections since the [Iranian] revolution," said one male voter. "But now they realize that elections are a very important matter."
"Participating in this election is a must for all Iranians and we hope that the new elected president will work for the good of Iran," said a female voter.
In what turned out to be a heated contest, the election is seen as a referendum on hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, 53, who has held office since 2005. Surrounded by his supporters as he cast his ballot, he later told reporters that Iran has a bright and progressive future.
Mr. Ahmadinejad is in a tight race against his main rival, reformist Mir Hossein Mousavi, 67, who served as prime minister in the 1980s and has become the surprise favorite younger voters. Mousavi has pledged to expand personal freedoms in Iran and to reach out to the West. On Friday, he called for a fair election.
"I have promised the people to secure their votes. My campaign [team] and I will remain awake until end of voting and we demand the election executives to keep the votes safe," he said.
The two other candidates approved to run for office by Iran's electoral council are seen by observers as having little chance of winning. The main campaign issues for all the candidates in this race have been Iran's faltering economy, its nuclear program and foreign relations.
President Ahmadinejad's rivals have accused him of badly mismanaging the economy and tarnishing Iran's image, further isolating the country from the West.
Observers expect a close race. Unless someone wins an outright majority, the two leading candidates will face each other in a run-off vote on June 19.