TEHRAN, Iran (AP) - Reform-minded Iranians who have faced years of crackdowns looked Friday to claw back a bit of ground in a presidential election that gave them an unexpected hero and a chance to upend a vote that once appeared solidly in the hands of Tehran's ruling clerics.
While Iran's presidential elections offer a window into the political pecking orders and security grip inside the country - particularly since the chaos from a disputed outcome in 2009 - they lack the drama of truly high stakes as the country's ruling clerics and their military guardians remain the ultimate powers.
Election officials began the ballot count after voters waited in line for hours in wilting heat at some polling stations in downtown Tehran and other cities, while others cast ballots across the vast country from desert outposts to Gulf seaports and nomad pastures. Voting was extended by five hours to meet demand, but also as possible political stagecraft to showcase the participation.
The apparent strong turnout suggested liberals and others abandoned a planned boycott as the election was transformed into a showdown across the Islamic Republic's political divide.
On one side were hard-liners looking to cement their control behind candidates such as nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, who says he is "100 percent" against detente with Iran's foes, or Tehran's mayor, Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf.
Opposing them were reformists and others rallying behind the "purple wave" campaign of the lone relative moderate left in the race, a former nuclear envoy, Hasan Rowhani.
A preliminary sampling of results from around Iran suggested Rowhani's appeal was broad in cities and rural areas, although the tally was too small to draw clear trends, officials handling the ballot count told The Associated Press. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief media.
But even if the last-moment surge around Rowhani brings him to the presidency, it would be more of a limited victory than a deep shake-up. Iran's establishment - a tight alliance of the ruling clerics and the ultra-powerful Revolutionary Guard - still holds all the effective power and sets the agenda on all major decisions such as Iran's nuclear program and its dealings with the West.
Security forces also are in firm control after waves of arrests and relentless pressures since the last presidential election in 2009, which unleashed massive protests over claims the outcome was rigged to keep the combative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power for a second and final term. He is barred from seeking a third consecutive run.
The greater comfort level by the theocracy and Revolutionary Guard sets a different tone this time. Opposition groups appear too intimidated and fragmented to revive street demonstrations, and even a win by Rowhani - the only cleric in the race - would not likely be perceived as a threat to the ruling structure.