TEHRAN, Iran - 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.
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. But 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 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.
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 ultrapowerful 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 term.
Rowhani led the influential Supreme National Security Council and was given the highly sensitive nuclear envoy role in 2003, a year after Iran's 20-year-old atomic program was revealed.
"Rowhani is not an outsider and any gains by him does not mean the system is weak or that there are serious cracks," said Rasool Nafisi, an Iranian affairs analyst at Strayer University in Virginia. "The ruling system has made sure that no one on the ballot is going to shake things up."
Yet a Rowhani victory would not be entirely without significance, either. It would make room for more moderate voices in Iranian political dialogue and display their resilience. It also would bring onto the world stage an Iranian president who has publicly endorsed more outreach rather than bombast toward the West.
In the Persian Gulf city of Bandar Abbas, local journalist Ali Reza Khorshid-zadeh said many polling stations had significant lines and many voters appeared to back Rowhani.
Just a week ago, Rowhani was seen as overshadowed by candidates with far deeper ties to the current power structure: Jalili and Qalibaf, who was boosted by a reputation as a steady hand for Iran's sanctions-wracked economy.
Then a moderate rival of Rowhani's bowed out of the presidential race to consolidate the pro-reform camp.