TEHRAN, May 23 (Reuter) - Tehran's upwardly-mobile middle classes turned out in large numbers at voting stations on Friday to cast their ballot in Iran's presidential election.
Voters in exclusive north Tehran are not a guide to how the rest of this diverse country of 60 million people will vote but they do show how large a role the issue of more social freedom for women and the young has played in this election.
The vast majority of those who had cast their ballots in this area said they had voted for former culture minister Mohammad Khatami although some openly expected that his conservative rival, Parliamentary Speaker Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, would become the next president.
``The problems of the young and the restrictions imposed on women should be eased off. I voted for Khatami because he's more enlightened,'' said Saeed Jalal, a civil engineer voting outside a mosque in Tehran's northern District One ward.
Khatami has been perceived by many women and young voters as more moderate than Nateq-Nouri and has won over a large section of this important electorate with by promising to have a woman in his cabinet and raising expectations that young people would be granted more social freedoms, analysts said.
Inside a language centre converted into a voting station, families and men dressed in smart, casual Western clothes together with groups of young women dressed in jeans under their Islamic coats and wearing make-up wrote down the name of their preferred candidate before placing it in a ballot box.
There was little evidence of the chador, the all-enveloping veil that some conservative Islamists believe women should be required to wear rather than a headscarf and a long coat over trousers. Wearing make-up in public is banned under Iran's Islamic dress code for women.
``We don't enjoy any kind of freedoms at all...We have no entertainment or lifestyle,'' said Laleh, a 17-year-old student, who said that she had voted for Khatami but was sure Nateq-Nouri would win because he had the support of Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. All Iranians 15 years or older can vote.
Khamenei has made statements favourable to Nateq-Nouri but stopped short of openly backing him.
``No one here attaches importance to young people in this country,'' said Maryam, an office worker in her early 20s who barely disguised her blue eye-shadow behind dark glasses.
Two families crammed into a car said that they had voted for Khatami on the basis that he was an intellectual, he defended women's rights and he could improve the education system and job prospects for Iranians.
Expecting that Nateq-Nouri would come to power, some Khatami voters assessed the future in bleak terms.
``If Nateq-Nouri wins it will become worse. Liberty will be more limited, there will be no proper attention paid to the problems of the young and more restrictions will be placed on women,'' said Shahnaz, a north Tehran housewife.
Nateq-Nouri has denied that he would make the chador compulsory and has acknowledged that problems exist among the young that need to be remedied.
One mother who called herself Pari said there could be ``a hollow future'' for her young daughter.
Nateq-Nouri voters at the booths said the majlis (parliament) speaker had the experience to run matters of state.
``I tried to see who the candidates are surrounded by, the groups that supported him in the past and his possible cabinet in the future...Khatami is surrounded by people I don't trust,'' said Hossein, a 17-year-old student.
Four candidates are running to replace President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani though analysts say only Nateq-Nouri and Khatami have any realistic chance of winning.