Iran election: hard-liners hold on, despite high inflation

Conservatives win 70 percent of parliament. But reformers gain, too.

Hasan Sarbakhshian/AP
A good turnout: Iran's government says more than 60 percent of the electorate turned out for Friday's elections.

From tomatoes to rent, prices in Iran have soared. Iran's nuclear defiance has brought four sets of UN and American sanctions. But that didn't stop Ashraf Banoo Rahimikia from casting her vote for Iran's hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

And the war widow was not alone, according to initial results of parliamentary elections last Friday. Conservative factions were expected to win a 70 percent majority in the 290-seat body – close to the same majority they held prior to the elections.

Even with grumbling over the 19 percent inflation rate and the disqualification of many opponents, the results allowed Iran's conservatives to claim a popular mandate.

"We like Ahmadinejad [despite] all the problems. Prices have gone up, but I will vote for him again. He understands people," says Mrs. Rahimikia, who has raised two children alone since her husband was "martyred" in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. "Though people are against him, he is one of us," adds Rihimikia. "We don't have high expectations from him, but he is fighting and that is good enough for us."

Liberal reformists, who once dominated Iran's political scene from the late 1990s to 2004, also claimed progress on a comeback.

Prior to the election, reformers had 40 seats in parliament and appeared set to gain at least 10 more in Friday's vote and second round runoffs in coming weeks. Reformists were hit hardest by the rejection of 1,700 candidates by government authorities before the vote.

"We announce with honor that we gained victory in an unequal election," said Abdollah Nasseri, spokesman for the main reformist coalition. "We managed to disturb the game of our opponents."

While conservatives held their ground, they aren't unified, and the stage is set for intra-conservative battles before the 2009 presidential election. Analysts say that it will pit less hard-line conservatives led by former nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani – who won by a 70 percent landslide in the religious city of Qom – against Ahmadinejad loyalists.

Out of 30 seats in Tehran, early results showed the 14 highest vote getters were the conservatives who call themselves "principlists" for their adherence to the principles of the 1979 Islamic revolution. The remaining 16 seats are to be decided by a runoff vote, in a capital that has witnessed some of the fiercest criticism of Mr. Ahmadinejad.

Both reformers and conservatives claimed victory. The hard-line daily newspaper Kayhan crowed that Iranians had once again "entrusted" parliament to the principlists. The reformist newspaper Etemaad-e Melli also struck a hopeful note, headlining that reformists were "strong" and conservative unity "fragile."

"Why should we be surprised?" says Ahmad Tavakoli, the influential head of the Parliamentary Research Center, a conservative candidate who received the third-highest vote count in Tehran. "We have had a great victory of conservatives on our nuclear policy.... People have bad memories of the political battling of the reform period."

"People still believe that not enough time has been given to Ahmadinejad to follow his economic policies – that's why they voted for his supporters," says Mr. Tavakoli.

Rana Sheidaiee, a conservative student whose family all backed the hard-line candidate lists, says that "If the parliament and president are the same [party], the country will progress. When they are different, energy is wasted on internal fighting."

But questions have been raised about the integrity of the vote. Official observers from reformist groups were reportedly made to leave some polling stations as counting began. Journalists were told to leave the ministry of interior – which ran the election – on polling night.

"This was not a real election, it was completely engineered," said one reformist voter after seeing the initial results. "This is fixed and that's sad. Once people start giving up on elections, that is the end."

Election turnout, officially given at 60 percent, was considered strong. The regime had called for voters to turn out in large numbers in response to US criticism of the democratic process as "cooked."

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei – who made clear his support of Ahmadinejad before the vote – said the "epic turnout defeated the enemies' craft and cunning and turned their psychological warfare ... into an empty bubble."

Some in the reformist camp, which wants to ease social and political restrictions, say they see no point in lending legitimacy to a regime they have no chance of changing. But reformist leaders discouraged a boycott.

"Competition among reformists will be outside the parliament, while competition between the principlists will happen inside parliament," says Amir Mohebian, political editor of the conservative Resalat newspaper. The president could face greater opposition from moderate conservatives, "but if most in parliament are for Ahmadinejad, he has good potential ... and will attack anyone who criticizes him."

As the 2009 presidential election nears, jockeying will increase – especially among the number of conservative former contenders who took part in the 2005 race. "Most of them think they are presidents-in-waiting, which makes it very difficult to form a coalition," says Mr. Mohebian. "Ideologically, Ahmadinejad can't accept a coalition with them because he thinks they are liberals."

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