Hard-liners pull ahead in Iran vote

But Ahmadinejad critics make a strong showing that could unsettle his domination of the legislature.

ahmadinejad vote 224 (photo credit: AP)
ahmadinejad vote 224
(photo credit: AP)
Hard-liners allied with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad pulled ahead in Iran's parliamentary elections, according to partial results early Saturday, but the president's critics were making a strong showing that could unsettle his domination of the legislature. In particular, conservatives who have grown disillusioned with the fiery Ahmadinejad appeared to be gaining ground. If such moderate conservatives do well, it could lead to greater friction between the parliament and Ahmadinejad. Conservative critics say Ahmadinejad has fumbled efforts to fix the economy of this oil-rich nation - hit by high inflation and unemployment and fuel shortages. They blame his fiery manner for worsening the standoff with the West, bringing on UN sanctions over Iran's nuclear program. In the 115 of parliament's 290 seats decided so far, pro-Ahmadinejad hard-liners won 42 seats and reformists 16, according to results announced by state television and the official news agency IRNA and reports from local officials speaking to The Associated Press. A slate of conservative critics of Ahmadinejad seized 28 seats so far, according to the results. Another 29 winners were independents whose political leanings were not immediately known. Reformists were hoping to at least form an effective minority bloc, larger than their approximately 40 seats in the outgoing parliament. But the results so far pointed to how deeply the movement was hurt when Iran's hard-line clerical leadership threw many of its candidates out of the race. Ahead of Friday's voting, the unelected Guardian Council used its powers to disqualify 1,700 candidates on grounds of insufficient loyalty to Islam or Iran's 1979 revolution. As a result, reformist candidates were running in only about half of the races nationwide, and many of them are little known to the public. The results so far did not include Teheran, where reformist sentiment is strongest. Many Iranians who support liberal reforms spent election day deliberating with friends and family, going back and forth between two options: vote and give legitimacy to an election many of them saw as unfair, or boycott and ensure an even stronger conservative domination of parliament. In the end, Hesam Javadi, a 30-year-old computer technician, voted. "We can't stop the rain," he said after casting his ballot for reformists at a north Teheran polling station. "But we can at least put an umbrella over our heads in self-defense." Reformists seek greater democracy at home and better relations with the West. Most want to dramatically reduce the unlimited powers of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei and the clerics who can overrule elected bodies like the parliament. In contrast, so-called "moderate conservatives" avidly support the clerical leadership and want to protect its powers and enforce a stricter social code among the public. But they have turned against Ahmadinejad since he came to office in 2005, often criticizing him as too closed minded and confrontational. If they do well, it could raise the chances Ahmadinejad will face a conservative challenger in presidential elections next year. Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf and former top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani have been touted as possibilities. Larijani, who left the nuclear post after differences with Ahmadinejad, won a seat in the clerical city of Qom, according to state television. He may now seek to push out Ahmadinejad allies and become parliament speaker or deputy speaker, giving him a strong position ahead of the presidential vote. More than 65 percent of the Iran's 44 million eligible voters cast ballots Friday, Interior Ministry spokesman Hasan Khanlou said. That was up from 51 percent in 2004 election when hard-liners took parliament from reformists, after many liberals were barred from running. Ahead of the vote, supreme leader Khamenei - who holds final say in all state matters in Iran - appeared to give his support to the Ahmadinejad camp. He urged Iranians to elect anti-US candidates and those "who can pave the way for the current government." In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack criticized the elections, saying "in essence the results ... are cooked. They are cooked in the sense that the Iranian people were not able to vote for a full range of people." "We urge Iranian leaders to end interference in future elections, including the 2009 presidential election," McCormack added. Some 4,500 candidates nationwide ran in Friday's vote. Final results will take days. Voting in Tehran appeared slow for much of the day, until the evening when it seemed to step up considerably. Authorities kept polls open an extra five hours to let in more voters. After sunset, significant lines appeared for the first time at many polling stations in the better-off districts of northern Tehran, seen as a stronghold for reformists. "I was undecided up to the last minute because all the best candidates were disqualified. But I'm voting for reformers to keep out those who lead a dictatorship in the name of Islam," said Homa Foroughi, who voted late in the day.