Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is fighting for his political life. On Friday, the country's 48 million voters will have the chance to choose another president or to give Ahmadinejad another four years.
"This is a referendum on Ahmadinejad," said Tehran University Professer Nasser Hadian. An incumbent president has never lost a race in the Islamic Republic; Ahmadinejad could be the first, after making missteps on the campaign trailand attacks on his policies and alleged economic mismanagement.
If Ahmadinejad garners more than 50 percent of Friday's votes he wins automatically, otherwise there will be a one-week runoff between the two highest vote-earners.
Ahmadinejad was once seen as the frontrunner – running far out front, with a skill for mobilizing his seemingly untouchable base of pious, provincial voters. But over the past few weeks his main competitor, reformist former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi, has taken the momentum; whether or not it's enough to overcome Ahmadinejad's strength, it has made the race too close to call.
Public opinion polls, which show either Mousavi or Ahmadinejad in the lead, offer little guidance given Iran's lack of reliable data and history of wildly unpredictable political outcomes. The two other candidates, reformist cleric Mehdi Karroubi and former Revolutionary Guards chief Mohsen Rezaei, seem to have little traction, but could make enough of a showing to push the race into a runoff.
Both Ahmadinejad and Mousavi have promised to continue Iran's controversial nuclear program. But on other issues they diverge sharply, painting contrasting visions of Iran's past and future. What Ahmadinejad's opponents see as flaws, he plays up as strengths; in Ahmadinejad's view his hard-line foreign policy, which has further isolated Iran from the West, has been a success for reasserting Iran's regional role and leading a group of developing countries known as the Non-Aligned Movement.
"He's trying to convince his base that Iran's international standing is much better with him in office," said Hadian, the Tehran University professor.
Mousavi, on the other hand, describes Ahmadinejad's foreign policy as an embarrassment and a disaster for Iran. His platform pushes greater social and political freedoms and a softer approach toward engagement with the United States – positions that match the priorities of most Iranians, who have expressed an overwhelming support for better ties with America.
Still, Iran's critically influential youth vote falls on both sides of the Mousavi-Ahmadinejad divide.
"Ahmadinejad has done much more bad than good. Even though we were in a time of war under Mousavi's prime minister, we were much happier at that time," said Ali, an accounting student who was born toward the end of the Iran-Iraq conflict. A majority of the voters were born after the 1979 Iranian Revolution; that demographic has shaped the agenda and ratcheted up public engagement in this election.
Moshtaba, 29, a government employee, says "we're tired of the lies. This government treats us like idiots…we're tired of hypocrisy and I believe our finances will be better under Mousavi, because he supports the people." Ahmadinejad supporters also make a populist argument, railing against the generation of Iranian leadership the president has blasted during the campaign.