Iran President Hassan Rouhani leading in election

Voting in the Hosseinie Ershad Mosque in Tehran                  Jan van der Made

Iranians continued voting into the evening on Friday in the country's first presidential election since its nuclear deal with world powers, as incumbent Hassan Rouhani looked to fend off a staunch challenge from a hard-line opponent.

Mr Rouhani won 22.8 million votes in the hard-fought contest, compared to 15.5 million for his main rival Ebrahim Raisi, who came in with 38.9 million votes counted, the Interior Ministry said and added that more votes still had to be counted.

"Rouhani's vote, particularly in rural areas, shows that Iranian people no longer believe in economic populism and radical change", said Ali Vaez, Iran analyst for the International Crisis Group, a think tank.

Ballot counting will start at midnight and final results are expected within 24 hours of polls closing, the semi-official Fars news agency said.

The Iranian expatriates, who joined their 55 million countrymen in picking the Islamic Republic's next leader, cast their votes at six polling stations across the country: four in Kuala Lumpur, one in Johor Baru and one in Penang.

Shortly before polls were due to close, state television reported that voting had been extended by at least two extra hours to 8:00 pm (1530 GMT) to cope with a "rush of voters".

Iran's Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was among the first to cast his ballot and urged others to do the same.

Exit polls indicate that Raeisi and Rouhani are leading the election for the Iranian presidency.

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Raisi has attacked the Rouhani government for his "weak" stance during negotiations and for having failed to cash in on the deal. At a polling station at Lorzadeh mosque in south Tehran, carpenter Hamza Khazem, 32, said: "Rouhani has done nothing for people like me".

The election is being widely viewed as a referendum on the 2015 nuclear deal led by Rouhani's administration.

Millions of Iranians voted late into the night Friday to decide whether incumbent President Hassan Rouha.

"We are still not pleased with the situation, but in the four years of Rouhani there has been a relative improvement and I'm voting to keep that", said Alireza Nikpour, a 40-year-old photographer in Tehran.

While Rouhani appears to be the more popular candidate among the public, Raisi enjoys close ties with the Supreme Leader and backing from the country's powerful elite Revolutionary Guards.

The presidential race has since narrowed to a two-horse race as other candidates either pulled out or backed Rouhani or Raisi. The reelection lead to unrest, mass arrests and killings.

Pro-reform candidate Mostafa Hashemitaba, who previously ran for president in 2001, and former culture minister Mostafa Mirsalim are the other two candidates in the race. The election will go to a runoff if no candidate wins more than 50% of votes cast.

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