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Last Updated: Wednesday, 15 June, 2005, 18:04 GMT 19:04 UK
Iran heads towards tight election
Campaign poster of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in Rafsanjani, south-east Iran
Former president Rafsanjani is seen as having broad appeal
Iran's presidential candidates are making a last ditch appeal to voters as campaigning entered its final 24 hours.

Some opinion polls suggest front-runner Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani might face a tougher challenge than expected when Iranians go to the polls on Friday.

Meanwhile Iranian state TV reported that one conservative candidate, Mohsen Rezaei, was pulling out of the race.

With half of the country's 67 million population under 25, all the candidates have been appealing to the youth vote.

But many voters are apathetic after years of high unemployment and a lack of political reform.

We have to move towards a democratic society stage by stage
Pardis, Tehran, Iran

Several voters told Iranian radio they saw little point in voting as the outcome was a foregone conclusion and would not change anything.

But if the campaigns - which must end on Thursday morning - failed to capture voters' imaginations, correspondents say they have broken taboos in the Islamic Republic.

Some of the candidates have pledged to engage in negotiations with the US, while some have used roller-skating girls to hand out campaign leaflets to appeal to young voters.

'Enthusiasm' plea

Mr Rezaei said he was withdrawing from the race "based on the opinions of senior religious leaders", the TV quoted him as saying.

Hardliners have called for some of the four conservative candidates to drop out to avoid splitting the vote.

Woman holds poster of Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf during an election rally in Karaj, Iran

Correspondents say Mr Rezaei had little chance of winning the election.

Of the seven remaining candidates, a mix of conservative and reformists, Mr Rafsanjani - who was president between 1989 and 1997 - is seen as one of the most likely to appeal to voters on both sides of the spectrum.

But many in Mashhad, Iran's second city, said they would back local man and former hardline police chief Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, who is currently running second in many opinion polls.

He is also most likely to benefit from Mr Rezaei's withdrawal.

"If I vote, I'll choose someone in a suit, not a turban," one taxi driver told Reuters.

But others said they would be sticking with Rafsanjani because of his political experience.

"When the choice is for bad or worse, mine is bad," one 21-year-old man said.

Outgoing President Mohamed Khatami, who was swept to victory in 1997 on a reformist ticket, urged voters to go to the polls with enthusiasm.

"The more the people claim their rights and take part in making decisions over their future, the more the way will be paved for choosing a state which reflects the people's revolution," he said on Iranian television.

Expert projections suggest most votes will be shared between Mr Rafsanjani, Mr Qalibaf and reformist Mostafa Moin, with no one polling the 50% needed to win in the first round.

A second round could be held on 1 July 1 - the first run-off in the Islamic republic's history.




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