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In Iran vote, conservatives set to retain power

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's hard-line allies and other conservative factions are expected to win a majority in the 290-seat parliament.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 14, 2008

A woman stands by ballot boxes in a mosque above a poster of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that promises "another spring," as Iranians vote in elections for the 8th "majlis" or parliament in Tehran, Iran on March 14, 2008.

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Iranians voted for a new parliament on Friday, in an election likely to reaffirm conservative dominance of Iranian politics. Authorities billed it as a blow against Western "enemies."

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Chances for reformists were limited by design, and hard-liners loyal to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other conservative factions were expected to keep their grip on the 290-seat parliament.

Final results won't be known for days. But the constant barrage of calls for mass turnout, on state television and from Iran's leaders, showed uncommon eagerness for a popular show of support from Iran's 44 million eligible voters.

"For our country and our nation this is a critical moment and day," said Iran's supreme religious leader Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, who usually stays above politics but has called Ahmadinejad's government the most popular in a century. "The election is a time that determines the fate of a nation."

Fatemeh Ghalampour, a small-claims judge and the chief of one of the 45,000 polling stations, couldn't agree more.

"Every single Iranian sees it as their duty to come and play a role in the future," says Ms. Ghalampour, her face framed by an all-black chador but also eyeliner and designer glasses, with several gold rings on her fingers. Those who choose not to vote, she says, "are unaware and lost. They are under the influence of others' negative views and don't use their brains."

But many reform-leaning Iranians on Friday said they saw no point in voting at all, since their ballot would not turn back hard-line control. Some 1,700 candidates, most of them reformists, were disqualified by hard-line vetting bodies, ensuring that the bulk of the 4,500 who remain are members of two main conservative camps.

A stone's throw from Ghalampour's polling station, half a dozen men – five older, one younger – enjoy tea in the morning sun. They refuse to vote, saying they've lost faith in politics. "All this is rubbish," says one of the men, nervously looking around and refusing to give his name. "It's all a lie ... everyone is sad because of the poor economy and high prices."

Conservatives seek large victory margin

Turnout has long been a critical benchmark in the Islamic Republic. Former president Mohammed Khatami's landslide victories in 1997 and 2001, with 80 percent and 67 percent turnout, drew upon a wave of expectations for change and easing of political and social restrictions that crushed conservative candidates.

Widespread anger at reform leaders for failing to keep those promises – and allowing conservatives to checkmate their progress at every turn – caused reformers, many of them young, to turn away from politics and punish their former heroes.

Today there is also widespread unhappiness with economic problems, and fierce criticism of Ahmadinejad's policy even from fellow conservatives. But the Islamic system does not want a repeat of the 2004 vote. Back then, conservatives wrested parliament back from reformists though turnout was just 51 percent nationwide, and only 40 percent in Tehran.

In Friday's election, conservatives viewed participation as a religious duty. Some even invoked the leader of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.