Tehran: Hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took an unbeatable lead in Iran’s election on Saturday, official results showed, but his moderate challenger alleged irregularities and claimed victory for himself.
The level of the incumbent’s support, roughly twice as many votes as former Prime Minister Mirhossein Mousavi with most ballots counted, confounded analyst predictions of a tight race.
A bitterly fought campaign generated intense excitement inside Iran and strong interest around the world, with policymakers looking for signs of a change in Tehran’s approach in its row with the West over its nuclear ambitions.
Listing several complaints before official results were announced, Mousavi said many people had not been able to vote and that there had been a lack of ballot papers.
He also accused the authorities of blocking text messaging, which his campaign has used to reach young, urban voters.
The Islamic Republic’s election commission said Ahmadinejad was ahead with 65% of the votes from Friday’s presidential election in the world’s fifth biggest oil exporter after nearly 29 million ballots had been counted.
Mousavi had 32% support, said the commission. Based on an interior ministry estimate of a maximum 80% turnout of Iran’s 46 million eligible voters, he could not beat Ahmadinejad with the votes still to be counted.
The official news agency IRNA said: ”Dr Ahmadinejad, by winning most votes ... has secured his victory.” It said final results would be announced at 8 a.m. (0330 GMT).
Speaking in Washington before early results were announced, US President Barack Obama said his administration was excited about the debate taking place in Iran and he hoped it would help the two countries to engage ”in new ways”.
Analysts had said a victory for Mousavi could help ease tensions with the West, which is concerned about Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, and improve chances of engagement with Obama, who has talked about a new start in ties with Tehran.
Mousavi had tried to pre-empt official announcements by calling a news conference at which he claimed victory and made his allegations about irregularities.
“I am the definite winner of this presidential election,” he said.
It was unclear how his supporters, who thronged the streets of Tehran nightly in the run-up to Friday’s vote, might react to an Ahmadinejad victory. US strategic intelligence group Stratfor called the situation ”potentially explosive”, with a considerable risk of unrest.
Scuffles broke out early on Saturday between police and chanting Mousavi supporters in a Tehran square, a Reuters witness said. Police say they have increased security across the capital to prevent any trouble. All gatherings have been banned until the publication of final results.
Shortly before voting ended, some Tehran residents said they were unable to make international phone calls and some Internet servers went down.
The three-week election campaign was marked by mudslinging, with Ahmadinejad accusing his rivals of corruption. They said he was lying about the state of the economy.
Ahmadinejad draws his bedrock support from rural areas or poorer big city neighbourhoods. Mousavi enjoys strong backing in wealthier urban centres, and was expected to attract votes from women and young Iranians.
Two other candidates attracted only a tiny share of the vote, early results showed. Under election rules, 50% of the vote is needed to win outright; otherwise a second round run-off would be held on June 19 between the two front-runners.
Long queues had formed at voting centres, after a heated campaign in which inflation -- officially around 15% -- and high unemployment were leading issues.
Ahmadinejad, 52, won power four years ago on a pledge to revive the values of the 1979 Islamic revolution. He has steadily built up Iran’s nuclear programme, rejecting Western charges that it is aimed at building an atomic bomb, and stirred international outrage by denying the Holocaust and calling for Israel to be wiped from the map.
Mousavi, 67, rejects Western demands that Iran halt uranium enrichment but analysts say he would bring a different approach to Iran-US ties and talks on the nuclear issue. Ultimately, however, nuclear and foreign policy are determined by the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The United States has had no ties with Iran since shortly after the revolution but Obama said in Washington the United States had ”tried to send a clear message that we think there is the possibility of change” in relations.