TEHRAN, Iran (TheBlaze/AP) — Iran’s reformist-backed presidential candidate surged to a wide lead in early vote counting Saturday, a top official said, suggesting a flurry of late support could have swayed a race that once appeared solidly in the hands of Tehran’s ruling clerics.

But the strong margin for former nuclear negotiator Hasan Rowhani was not yet enough to give him an outright victory and avoid a two-person runoff next Friday.

Early Vote Count in Iran Gives Rowhani Wide Lead

Iranian presidential candidate Hasan Rowhani, a former Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, casts his ballot during presidential elections at a polling station in downtown Tehran, Iran, Friday, June 14, 2013. Credit: AP

Rowhani had 46.6 percent of the more than 861,000 votes tallied, said Iran’s interior minister, Mostafa Mohammad Najjar, well ahead of Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf with about 14.6 percent. Hardline nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili was slightly behind in third.

It was unclear when the final count would be known. Iran has more than 50 million eligible voters, and turnout in Friday’s election was believed to be high.

Many reform-minded Iranians who have faced years of crackdowns looked to Rowhani’s rising fortunes as a chance to claw back a bit of ground.

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 on 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.

Early Vote Count in Iran Gives Rowhani Wide Lead

FILE – In this Saturday, June 1, 2013 file photo, in front of a portrait of the late Iranian revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini, presidential candidate Hasan Rowhani, a former top nuclear negotiator, center, gestures to his supporters at a rally in Tehran, Iran. Iranian pro-reform candidate, Mohammad Reza Aref, pulled out of this week’s presidential election to give support to a centrist whose campaign has gained momentum in recent days. The decision by Aref is seen as a major boost for Hasan Rowhani, who now faces off against five conservative candidates Friday. Credit: AP

The apparent strong turnout – estimated at 75 percent by the hardline newspaper Kayhan – 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 Jalili, who says he is “100 percent” against detente with Iran’s foes, or Qalibaf.

Opposing them were reformists and others rallying behind the “purple wave” campaign of Rowhani, the lone relative moderate left in the race.

The interior minister said Rowhani had more than 401,000 votes from the 861,866 counted so far. Qalibaf trailed with nearly 127,000, and Jalili had more than 119,000. The other three candidates were further back.

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.

This story will be updated when final election results are in.

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