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.
Youth Vote Could Swing the Election
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.
"Ahmadinejad is the first president we've had who's actually traveled around the country to see the provinces… he's never wasted any opportunities that he's had and he's never wasted the country's money," said Amir, 30, who works in confectionary.
"I'm voting for Ahmadinejad because the rest of my family is," said Elham, 22, a student.
The tight race has sent a rush of enthusiastic demonstrators onto the streets of Iran. Supporters have rallied by the tens of thousands this week, some dancing and chanting in the streets through the early morning, leaving behind a paper carpet of campaign posters.
Wednesday was the last official day of electioneering, when campaign activities must end at 12:30 a.m. By day, thousands of Ahmadinejad supporters gathered for a rally in Tehran. Later, hordes of Mousavi supporters walked up Vali Asr street, the city's main thoroughfare, alongside a van that blasted prayers and campaign slogans like "Ahmadi-bye-bye."
On Monday, while tens of thousands of Ahmadinejad supporters filled a packed stadium, Mousavi's formed a human chain that reportedly stretched seven miles from northern to southern Tehran.
First Televised Debates Liven up Elections
One turning point in the campaign was a series of live, televised debates pairing each of the four contenders. One week ago Ahmadinejad and Mousavi went one-on-one, sparring on policy and personal issues. Mousavi called Ahmadinejad an "extremist," criticizing him for moves like questioning the Holocaust; Ahmadinejad accused Mousavi of links to corruption and attacked his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, accusing her of flawed academic credentials. Rahnavard, a university head who has campaigned by Mousavi's side, has pitched her husband as the candidate for women's rights and drawn significant female support to his cause.
The debates galvanized voters on both sides, and earned Ahmadinejad criticism for his personal attacks and for accusing long-time leaders like former president Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani of corruption and taking the country down the wrong direction. Moreover, they gave voters a rare chance to hear an airing of grievances, from the economy to state policy, that have become major issues on the campaign trail.
"To see this clash, to see them hash things out and debate in such an aggressive manor was completely unprecedented in the Iran political system," said Trita Parsi of the National Iranian-American Council.
The heat and excitement of the election has overturned voter apathy that has traditionally kept young voters away from the polls; analysts are predicting a turnout as high as 80 percent, eclipsing the 60 percent turnout in the 2005 race that first elected Ahmadinejad. But some cynicism remains ahead of Friday's vote. There are widespread concerns about vote-rigging, heightened by the emergence of a fatwa (or religious decree) allowing cheating by changing votes to Ahmadinejad, the candidate perceived as the most faithful to Islam.
If serious allegations of vote tampering were to surface it would sound a sour note through a polarized and intense political atmosphere. The sheer energy of the campaigns have led to concerns that any triggered tensions could lead to chaos.
"Iran is very much in a festive mood, like a carnival right now," said Hadian. "I hope that will remain the case."