Iranian Hardliners Win Parliamentary Poll

Iran's hardliners maintained their political upper hand after Friday's parliamentary poll, according to election results announced this weekend. This year's elections come less than one week before Norouz, the Persian new year holiday seen as a fresh start by most Iranians.

In early vote counts religious conservatives known as "principalists" in the Iranian political system made a strong showing. One count showed conservatives with 70 percent of parliaments seats, the widely expected outcome after more than 1500 pro-reform candidates were banned from running final tallies to be out this week after run-off votes in some constituencies.

"They disqualified most of the important reformists, so of course the conservatives are doing well," said Barbara Slavin, an Iran expert covering the elections for the U.S. Institute of Peace.

"The conservatives will dominate this parliament, as they did the last ... the question is, what kind of conservatives? Will they be conservative supporters of Ahmedinejad? Or will they be closer to other conservative figures, such as Ali Larijani, the former nuclear negotiator or [Tehran Mayor] Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf? These guys see themselves as more pragmatic, better managers, and they have distaste for Ahmedinejad."

Elections have always been part of the Islamic Republic, with one key caveat: ruling religious clerics can veto any candidate considered unfit for office. Iran's pro-reform party, aligned with former President Mohammad Khatami, complained that candidates were barred from running for more than half of all seats. After Friday's poll reformists won roughly 20 percent of spots, according to an early government count -- a clear minority, but one that approaches the 50 seat benchmark seen as success for reformists after mass disqualifications.

Friday's election was widely seen as a referendum on President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad before he runs for reelection in 2009. Conservatives are split between those who support Ahmedinejad and those who disagree with his controversial economic and foreign affairs policies.

Even with the disqualification and high-level oversight Iran considers itself an Islamic democracy. Officials announced a 65 percent turnout – hailed as a victory for an Islamic government that was urging citizens to vote. Iranian leaders see turnout as a key indicator of public support for the Islamic Republic. Voting hours were extened to 11 pm to give Iranians more to time to reach the polls.

"It's been fascinating to see the way in which they make voting to be a test of patriotism in this country ... they see it as a kind of show of support for the regime, so if people don't come out that means they don't support the regime," Slavin observed.

Many of those who did saw it as their religious and patriotic duty, following Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's message that it was the "politico-religious obligation" of every Iranian to go to the polls.

"I don't support any particular political group. I support what the Supreme Leader says. Those who were disqualified showed too much Western thinking." said 35-year-old Fatima, who voted in Ahmedinejad's home neighborhood of Narmak in Eastern Tehran. She said she voted as an act of resistance against Iran's enemies, namely Israel and the West.

"People who say there is no freedom in Iran should see that women and young people are coming to the polling station to cast their ballot."

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