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."

Zohreh, a 25-year-old supporter of the reformist camp, also voted in Narmak.

"I came out to support my nation, my country, and the pro-reform candidates I support," she told ABC News.

"Americans should know that our people love our country. I come and vote to support my country."

Different neighborhoods in Tehran, which vary sharply by socioeconomic level, saw varying turnouts.

"The most surprising thing to me [about the elections] was the low turnout in south Tehran, which is a generally poor area. I went to one polling station in southern Tehran that was practically empty," Barbara Slavin observed.

"I think there was more of a showing in middle class neighborhoods where people seem more engaged in the political process."

One 24-year-old in Tehran noted a particular voter apathy among the young. "I did not vote in the 8th parliamentary elections since nothing's going to change ... the Iranian people do not play any role in the country's political arena," she said, asking not to be identified even by her first name.

A 30-year-old male university student said, "I didn't get the chance to vote but I think that the most important issues come up after the elections. The elected MPs should address major problems facing the Iranian society including public welfare and prosperity."

The economy was the primary issue in Friday's election, especially for Iran's youth. The effect of international sanctions mixed with Ahmedinejad's economic policies are making basic necessities harder to provide and pushing home ownership out of reach for many Iranians. High unemployment is an ongoing problem and government statistics showed an inflation rate of 18 percent last year.


In the wake of the elections most Iranian are wishing for a better economy in the new year, hoping it will be easier to make ends meet.

"My hope for the year ahead is that the government will overcome the country's problems -- the kind of problems that exist in any country," said Zohreh, the pro-reform voter.

Mehrdad, a gray haired man in Tehran, wanted to see "the victory of Iran, the victory of Islam, understanding between the people of Iran and the United States."

Even with conservatives retaining power the coming years could see substantially varied outcomes in US-Iranian relations, depending on which conservatives determine foreign policy for the Islamic Republic.

"[Principalists] want a deal with the United States, but they want it on their terms," said Slavin. On Friday, the same day as the elections, Conservative Expediency Council chairman and former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said Iran was ready for talks with America over its nuclear program, but without pre-conditions called for by the United States.

"They want what the United States offered Communist China and the USSR in the 1970s: détente and respect. Then they will sit down and negotiate," noted Slavin, author of the book "Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S., and the Twisted Path to Confrontation."

"It won't be easy -- Iran is a fierce negotiator. But I believe they are very eager for this kind of relationship. I heard it two years ago when I was last here and I am hearing it now."

Farzaneh Esmaili in Tehran contributed to this article.