Low turnout reported in Iran elections

Race seen as test of Ahmadinejad's support among conservatives, many of whom are disillusioned.

iran vote 224 88 (photo credit: )
iran vote 224 88
(photo credit: )
Only a handful of voters showed up at many polling stations in Teheran on Friday for Iran's parliament elections, a sign of frustration with a vote that hard-liners allied with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are expected to dominate. Where lines formed in the capital, it was at a few major mosques, where most voters backed pro-Ahmadinejad candidates. Iran's reformist movement, which seeks democratic changes at home and better ties with the West, was largely sidelined in the race after most of its candidates were barred from running by Iran's clerical leadership. With reformists crippled, the race is instead a test of Ahmadinejad's support among conservatives, some of whom have become disillusioned with the president since he came to office in 2005. Ahmadinejad could face a challenge from moderate conservatives in presidential elections next year. 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. At polling stations at a few large mosques in southern Teheran, there were lines of 50 to 60 people soon after voting began Friday morning, with a steady flow of people coming in. Outside, young boys urged passers-by to come in and vote for conservatives. Many filled their ballots by picking names from printouts of the United Front of Principlists, a slate dominated by Ahmadinejad allies. But at dozens of polling stations in schools, universities and other mosques around the city, voters dribbled in slowly during the day, groups of three to five entering from time to time. Of the few that came in, most supported reformists, bringing in newspaper lists of reformist candidates for Teheran's 30 seats to check them off on the ballot. "Many students and activists have been under pressure because of their political activities," said Reza Kolahroudi, a 22-year-student who showed up to vote for reformists. "I hope reformists can change the current situation." Mashallah Kinai, 41, owner of an advertising company said he hoped reformists could "promote a better international image of Iran." Local residents contacted by The Associated Press in several cities around Iran said voting there was also slow, with handfuls of voters in polling stations at a time. In Tabriz in the northwest, Shiraz in the south and Sabzavar in the northeast, residents said the turnout appeared around the same or less than in 2004 elections, when hard-liners captured the parliament. But in the afternoon, state television said turnout among the estimated 44 million eligible voters was higher than that the 51 percent officially reported in 2004. The report did not give a specific percentage. In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, when asked about reports of a low turnout said the disqualification of candidates "raises some questions about whether the Iranian people has a full menu of political choices available to them in this election. Then again, that is not something that is new." Some 4,500 candidates nationwide are running for parliament's 290 seats in Friday's vote. Reformists say they don't have candidates in around 200 of the races. The Guardian Council - an unelected body of clerics and jurists - disqualified around 1,700 candidates, mostly reformists, on the grounds they were insufficiently loyal to Islam or Iran's 1979 revolution. The reformist candidates who remain are mostly little-known to the public. Many reform supporters decided to boycott the vote because of the disqualifications. But reform leaders are pressing them to go to the polls, saying they can win a strong minority if turnout is strong enough, rather than the handful of seats they now have. Former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a powerful member of the clerical leadership seen as a top rival of Ahmadinejad, tried to convince the boycotters to vote. "To be reluctant and say 'Why we should participate in the election?' is a kind of self-destruction," said Rafsanjani, according to the state news agency IRNA. "This will lead to the absence of their favorite candidates in the council." Rafsanjani, who lost to Ahmadinejad in 2005 presidential elections, is a moderate conservative figure, but has grown closer to reformists. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has backed conservatives, saying earlier this week that Iranians should elect anti-US candidates "whose loyalties are to Islam and justice." Many people were more concerned with shopping, packing malls and shops on main street to prepare for the Iranian New Year, Nowruz, which takes place next week. Sherine Faraji said she might vote in the afternoon after shopping. "If I get to the polls, I'll vote for reformists. They don't bother women," said Faraji, who wore a tight-fitting jacket and a colorful headscarf that showed much of her hair. Conservatives seek to enforce a stricter female dress code covering the entire hair and hiding the body from head to toe. Reformists held parliament from 2000 to 2004. During that time, they loosened Islamic social restrictions. But hard-liners, who control the unelected clerical bodies whose powers trump the parliament and president, prevented deep political change. The key question will be the performance of Ahmadinejad's conservative critics, a year ahead of presidential elections. A strong showing Friday by the Inclusive Coalition of Principlists - a slate of candidates that includes conservative critics of the president - would be a sign of Ahmadinejad's waning support. The list is seen as linked to Teheran's popular mayor, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a conservative often cited as a possible rival to Ahmadinejad in the 2009 election. Another key candidate in Friday's race is Ali Larijani, who stepped down as Iran's top nuclear negotiator because of differences with Ahmadinejad. Larijani, who is Khamenei's personal representative on the Supreme National Security Council, is running for parliament from the city of Qom and has sometimes also been cited as a possible presidential candidate in 2009.