TEHRAN, Iran (AP) _ Iran's reformist president surged Saturday toward an election landslide that showed powerful support for his drive to bring more freedoms to the Islamic system, early results indicated.
The widely anticipated triumph for President Mohammad Khatami could even surpass the 70 percent of the vote he captured in 1997 with his ideas to reshape Iran as a less restrictive and isolated nation.
Khatami had 77.2 percent of 20.5 million votes counted _ nearly half of the eligible electorate for Friday's election, according to the Interior Ministry. Final results could come late Saturday or Sunday.
He received between 88 percent and 93 percent of votes cast by Iranians abroad, the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency reported.
Interior Ministry officials predicted the turnout could exceed 80 percent _ or 35 million of the 42.1 million Iranians who have reached the voting age of 16. Balloting was extended five hours Friday to handle the crowds.
The apparent confirmation of Khatami's vast popularity, especially among the young, gives him significant clout in his challenges to the wide-ranging control of conservative clerics.
``The hard-liners should take a serious look at the results. The momentum for change is clear,'' said Mohammad Hadi Semati, a political affairs professor at Tehran University.
Nearly 90 percent of eligible voters took part in the elections that brought Khatami to power four years ago. Some Khatami critics claim a lower turnout this year could suggest apathy or disenchantment with his reform efforts.
But the media widely recognized the outcome as pivotal.
``Victory of democracy,'' read a headline in the pro-Khatami daily Nowruz.
``The battleship of reforms is here to stay,'' proclaimed the main editorial in the independent Iran News.
State-run Tehran Radio called the vote and large turnout ``epic.''
Khatami envisions an ``Islamic democracy'' with room for greater openness in the media, arts and politics _ including more contacts with Western businesses and governments. He also has encouraged fewer social restrictions, such as unsupervised dates between young couples.
But in Iran, the president has limited powers. All major decisions rest with religious authorities: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his hand-picked group of theocrats, whose control extends to institutions such as the judiciary and security forces.
They have tolerated some new liberties: young lovers strolling hand-in-hand and more revealing head scarves and coats for women. But the lines have been drawn at open criticism of the Islamic system and changes they fear could undermine their influence.
Prominent activists and journalists have been jailed and dozens of publications remain banned.
A key test for Khatami is whether he can use his enormous popularity as leverage on the conservative clerics, who took power after the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed monarchy.
Khatami often speaks of ``institutionalizing'' changes with new laws and edicts.
Yet there was no immediate sign the hard-line clerics were willing to bend.
``This vote should convince the unpopular hard-liners to stop standing against the people's wishes,'' said a Khatami supporter in Tehran, 18-year-old Hussein Dadi.
Young people represent the core of Khatami's support. About 60 percent of Iran's 62 million people are under 25 years old _ too young to have direct connection with the Islamic revolution.
Khatami faced nine challengers who ranged from staunch conservatives to those seeking to fight corruption and improve the economy.
Ahmad Tavakoli, an economist who appealed for sweeping fiscal reforms, was a far second with 14 percent of the vote, according to the early totals. Tavakoli, an economist, had campaigned on pledges to improve the economy.
Also at stake were 16 parliament seats _ apparently dominated by reformist candidates _ and two seats on the panel that elects the supreme leader.
More than 45,000 polling stations were used in Friday's vote. Helicopters carried ballot boxes to the most remote villages. Guards were given voting material for jailed dissidents and other prisoners, the Interior Ministry said.
The most senior dissident cleric, Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, voted from his house arrest quarters in the holy city of Qom, the nation's center of Islamic study.
``Democracy and freedom have not been implemented,'' Montazeri wrote in a communique sent to The Associated Press.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the large turnout ``seems to indicate that there's a great desire for freedom, for openness, for the rule of law, for the better lives for the Iranian people and their children.''