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Hard-Liners Take Early Lead In Iranian Elections

Source: RFE/RL

Hard-line conservatives allied with President Mahmud Ahmadinejad have taken an early lead in Iran's parliamentary elections according to unofficial results.

A polling station in Tehran

Iranian state television is reporting that hard-line conservative supporters of Ahmadinejad have taken 53 out of 144 contests tallied so far.  Moderate conservatives have won 38 mandates and reformists 18. Another 35 winners are independents.

There are 290 seats in the Iranian parliament, called the Majlis, and most results have not yet been tabulated. 

Hasan Khanlou, a spokesman at Iran's Interior Ministry, nevertheless says turnout was more than 65 percent of Iran's 44 million eligible voters -- up significantly from the 51 percent who voted in the 2004 election.

The election, held on March 14, is seen as a crucial test for Ahmadinejad in advance of next year's presidential elections where he is expected to face challenges from moderate conservatives and -- to a lesser degree -- from reformers.

Iran's conservatives are divided between hard-line supporters of Ahmadinejad and a more moderate faction alligned with former nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei and other senior officials had called for a big turnout to defy the countries they say are Iran's enemies. Reformists had also urged their supporters to vote to deny conservatives clear dominance in the next parliament.


Outside The Empowered Circle

Still, many Iranians have complained about a lack of choice after the Guardians Council -- an unelected body of clerics and jurists -- disqualified some 1,700 mostly moderate candidates on the grounds that they were insufficiently loyal to Islam or Iran's 1979 revolution.

"In this eighth parliamentary election [since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution], we have unfortunately seen the omission of most of the reformists, nationalists, and candidates who stand outside the current empowered circle," former  reformist legislator Jalal Jalalizadeh told Radio Farda on March 14.  "As a result, in most of the polling areas there are no candidates other than the ones who are close to the ruling bloc. This has led to the disappointment of people and thus in many electoral areas they have not participated."

One unidentified man, voting in Tehran,  told Reuters that "there wasn't a candidate on the lists that actually appealed to me...I couldn't find the right candidate."

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack has criticized the elections, saying the results were "cooked" because the Iranian people were not able to vote for a full range of candidates.

Challenges Ahead

Analysts say, however, that despite the bias toward conservative candidates, Ahmadinejad will likely have a more difficult time with the new parliament than he had with the outgoing legislature.

"Reformists -- many of whom have been banned from running -- will, in the most optimistic view, succeed in getting one third of the seats in parliament," Mashaollah Shamsolvaezin, a Tehran-based journalist, told Radio Farda on March 14. "This powerful minority, along with the majority of the traditional and technocratic conservatives who oppose Ahmadinejad's policies, can form a remarkable majority, in order to put an end to the Ahmadinejad's current policies in terms of lawmaking. On the other hand, they can provide a tighter control over Ahmadinejad's domestic and foreign policy, especially in the field of economy."

Likewise, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a close ally of reformist former President Mohammad Khatami said he expected Ahmadinejad to face "more challenges" with the next parliament.

Reformists and some conservatives have accused Ahmadinejad of fueling inflation, which now stands at 19 percent, with loans and subsidies. Reformists have also criticized him for his vitriolic anti-Western rhetoric, which has led to Tehran's increased international isolation.

The president is facing increased opposition from moderate conservatives led by Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, former Islamic Revolution Guards Corps chief Mohsen Rezaie, and former nuclear negotiator Larijani.

There are also two coalitions of moderate reformers: the Reformist Coalition inspired by former reformist President Khatami and the National Confidence Party led by former parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi.

(RFE/RL's Radio Farda contributed to this report)

Copyright (c) 2008 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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