Voters in Iran have delivered a blow to the powerful grip of conservative clerics, by giving decisive control of parliament to reformist candidates for the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Reformers say the large, record turnout - 80 percent of eligible voters, including a large number of women and youths - favored them.
The vote on Friday was largely seen as a referendum on the liberalizing agenda of President Mohamad Khatami, who won a landslide victory in 1997. But Mr. Khatami's reformist agenda had been checked by right-wing control of the parliament, the judiciary, and security organs.
With most of the results in by press time, reformists were expected to win outright 60 percent of the 290 seats.
Trends indicate the conservatives might take less than 25 percent of the seats of the next parliament, which will convene in May. And most of the conservatives are of moderate leanings, with many hard-line incumbents bumped out of the race by voters.
"What has happened has been very clear, strong, and dynamic," says a senior Western diplomat in Tehran. "For President Khatami, the road will be very difficult yet, but the balance of power has changed."
With a more reform-minded parliament, Khatami may have an easier time pushing through some of his reform agenda, such as social, cultural, and political reforms.
That will ultimately depend on a 12-man Guardian Council, which approves the parliament's laws, as well as the supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, who as supreme leader approves all decisions.
But in a sign of acceptance of the reform candidates, Abdullah Nouri - a dissident cleric, who also ran a newspaper and was convicted of apostasy earlier this year - was allowed to go home Saturday for three days.
State Department Spokesman James Rubin called the result a change of "historic proportions" that could herald a "new approach" from Iran to the outside world.
Staunchly religious cities such as Mashad and Isfahan were swept by reformists, and all but a couple of Tehran's 30 seats were expected to go to the reform camp.
Setting a record, more than 80 percent of Iranian voters cast ballots, and name recognition had an impact. Khatami's brother, Mohammad Reza Khatami, was believed to have topped Tehran candidates by 85 percent of voters.
The top conservative candidate, former president and parliamentary speaker Hashemi Rafsanjani - who is widely associated with Iran's severe economic and other problems - appeared set to finish far down the Tehran list.
"These elections are one step to bring democracy, but now it is definitely irreversible," says reform columnist Emadedin Baghi. "The last parliament was an obstacle to Khatami, but this one will be an asset."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society