TEHRAN, Iran – A historical second-round election runoff for Iran's next president returned to the hustings Sunday two men whose style couldn't be more different.
One of the nation's best known statesmen, Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani (search), ran a slick Western-style campaign that portrayed him as the seasoned political navigator, wise to the ways of international diplomacy, strong enough to stare down the United States but astute enough to know when to return to fight another day. He was shown on state-run television chatting with his wife, talking to young people, listening to girls dressed in modest coats and headscarves but not the all encompassing black chador.
His rival, the arch conservative mayor of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (search), embraces his image of the simple, unpolished man who told a news conference that he could not foresee improved ties with any country that "seeks hostility" against Iran, a usual reference to the United States.
Ahmadinejad's campaign style has been described as "old-school" reminiscent of the days before the heavy emphasis on television images and soundbites. Ahmadinejad passed out pamphlets and had his supporters plaster cement walls with his picture.
He was unabashedly conservative, and said Iran had seen enough political reform. His campaign mantra has been to tap into Iran's (search) national pride. His favorite slogan was: "It is possible and we can do it." His second favorite was "Islamization of the administration", an indication of the conservative path he will follow if elected.
The vote between Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad was suprisingly close with barely two percentage points separating them. A shaken Rafsanjani took just 21 percent of the vote and Ahmadinejad 19.48 percent.
Ahmadinejad's nearest rival, former Parliament speaker Mahdi Karroubi, was a whisper behind him with 19.3 percent of the vote. Karroubi has cried fraud, and accused the Revolutionary Guard and their vigilante civilian groups of intimidating voters to mark their ballots for Ahmadinejad, a former military man. Karroubi has demanded an official probe and warned he would stage street protests.
Karroubi told Associated Press Television News in an interview Saturday that the election was "not normal at all."
Karroubi's campaign chief, Ali Akbar Montashamipour, said any signs of military interference in politics will make "people rise up against the establishment."
But the results suggested significant shifts under way in Iran — with conservatives reclaiming more ground and liberals worrying more about jobs and foreign policy leadership than the fight for greater social freedoms.
The top pro-reform candidate, former culture minister Mostafa Moin, was humbled by a distant fifth-place finish. Moin, considered the political heir of outgoing President Mohammad Khatami, was billed as Rafsanjani's most credible rival.
But his bid was steamrolled by conservatives at the polls despite a respectable 62.7 turnout defied a boycott drive by groups opposing the Islamic system — which comprised a strong part of Moin's bloc.
"In the current situation of inflation and unemployment, the promise of more freedom just attracts intellectuals," said Tehran-based political analyst Reza Fathi. "That time is over."
Despite vast oil and gas wealth, many people earn less than $2,000 a year, inflation runs above 20 percent and some analysts place the jobless rate near 40 percent.
The upcoming election duel will offer distinct choices.
Rafsanjani, 70, is a mix of political cunning and business power as nominal head of a family empire that includes an airline and a large cut of the nation's pistachio export business. He served as president from 1989-97 — bowing out because of a two-term limit — and then moving into the inner circles of the theocracy.
He portrays himself as the most capable leader to handle Iran's delicate negotiations with the West over its nuclear ambitions, which Washington claims is a cover for a weapons program. Iran says it only seeks peaceful nuclear power.
Ahmadinejad draws his support from Iran's ultra-conservative wings such as veterans of the 1980-9 war with Iraq and the civilian "basiji" militia corps with ties to the ruling establishment.
He was a member of a militant student faction during the revolution and later volunteered to fight on the front lines against Saddam Hussein's forces. He served in provincial posts in the 1990s before being appointed as mayor of Tehran in 2003 by the conservative-led municipal council.
Rafsanjani has suggested he would be open to greater dialogue with the United States. But Ahmadinejad told a news conference Saturday that he could not foresee improved ties with any country that "seeks hostility" against Iran.
Meanwhile, Iran's foreign minister demanded an apology Sunday from President Bush for his sharp criticism of the election. Kamel Kharrazi told a news conference that Bush's criticism boosted turnout and helped defeat a boycott drive by dissidents opposing Iran's Islamic regime. "It goaded them into voting," he said.
A day before Friday's vote, Bush denounced the election, saying it ignored "the basic requirements of democracy" because Iran's real power rests with the non-elected Islamic clerics. Bush said the theocracy "suppresses liberty at home and spreads terror across the world."