Millions of Iranians joined long queues to vote today, a sign of strong turnout in an unexpectedly tight presidential election.
Shortly before polls were due to close, state television reported that voting had been extended by at least two extra hours to 20:00 (15:30 GMT) to cope with a “rush of voters”.
The presidential vote pits Hassan Rouhani, who wants to normalise ties with the West, against a judge who says Rouhani has gone too far and sold out the values of Iran’s Islamic revolution to its enemies.
Rouhani, who struck a deal with world powers two years ago to curb Iran’s nuclear programme in return for the lifting of most economic sanctions, said the election was important “for Iran’s future role in the region and the world”.
“Whoever wins the election, we should help him to fulfil this important and serious duty,” state news agency IRNA quoted him as saying after voting.
Rouhani, 68, who swept into office four years ago promising to open Iran to the world and give its citizens more freedom at home, faces an unexpectedly strong challenge from Ebrahim Raisi, a protégé of supreme leader Ali Khamenei.
Raisi has blamed Rouhani for mismanaging the economy and has travelled to poor areas holding rallies, pledging more welfare benefits and jobs.
He is believed to have the backing of the powerful Revolutionary Guards security force, as well as the support of Khamenei, whose powers outrank those of the elected president but who normally steers clear of day-to-day politics.
“I respect the outcome of the vote of the people and the result will be respected by me and all the people,” Raisi said after voting, according to the semi-official Fars news agency.
In the last election, Rouhani won more than three times as many votes as his closest challenger. But this time the outcome promises to be much closer, as other conservative rivals have backed out and thrown their support behind Raisi.
The Guards and other hardliners hope that a win for Raisi, 56, will give them an opportunity to safeguard economic and political power they see as jeopardised by the lifting of sanctions and opening to foreign investment.
Some 350,000 members of the security forces were deployed around the country to protect the election, state television reported. The interior ministry said at mid-day that it had no reports of electoral offences so far, state television reported.
Ballot counting was expected to start at midnight and final results are expected within 24 hours of polls closing, TV reported. The elections are also for city and village councils.