Iran election draws conservatives: 'God, please accept this vote from me'

State TV reported a turnout of 64.6 percent in Iran's election today, the first since the 2009 poll that led to a crisis of legitimacy for the regime. Leaders said it was a 'religious duty' to vote.

Kamran Jebreili/AP
Iranians queue to cast their ballot for the parliamentary elections at Masoumeh shrine in the city of Qom, 78 miles south of the Tehran, Iran, Friday.

Iranian state media has declared a heavy turnout in parliamentary elections, in line with assertions by top officials that mass participation would "smack the face" of Iran's enemies.

State-run PressTV reported that 64.6 percent of eligible voters had cast ballots one hour before polls closed. Officials extended voting by four hours to 10 p.m. local time, to accommodate large numbers, they said, and PressTV stated that "most provinces requested more ballot papers."

Despite those figures, there was also widespread anecdotal evidence that an opposition boycott kept many reform-minded voters at home – especially in big cities like Tehran.

If true, the 64.6 percent figure is several points above the last parliamentary election, in 2008 – and is meant by Iran's conservative leaders to remove the stain of the 2009 presidential race and its violent aftermath.

Iranians in the capital said voting day looked like many before it, with sparse turnout in wealthier northern parts of the city, and polling stations in the more conservative center and south crowded with those more likely to heed the words of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that voting was a "religious duty."

"To me it was like a typical election, and I've seen many of them," said an Iranian analyst who visited a number of stations throughout the day.

"I'd be really surprised if officials announced 70 percent turnout; it would be really strange," says the analyst, who asked not to be named. Lower overall turnouts were expected in Tehran – where two popular opposition leaders remain under house arrest, and pro-democracy Green Movement protests were brutally crushed in 2009.

Says the analyst: the 64.6 percent figure is "a little more than my expectation, but again it's not so ground-breaking."

Iranians were quoted throughout the day, by Iranian and Western media alike, as professing devotion to Iran's Islamic system and the "duty and right" to vote for it – especially in the face of sanctions and threats to Iran over its nuclear program.

"God, please accept this vote from me," the semi-official Fars News Agency quoted a 95-year-old man in Damavand saying as he passed away, according to a translation by EAWorldview.

Others in the opposition camp declared the vote a pointless exercise, since reformist candidates were among more than 2,000 applicants who were rejected – along with 33 sitting members of parliament.

Battle on the right

The political battle waged today took place entirely on the right of the political spectrum, between conservative titans and followers of Ayatollah Khamenei on one side, and his divisive President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the other.

The results, as they become clear in coming days, will shape how Iran's fractious conservatives will approach key presidential elections in June 2013, at the end of Mr. Ahmadinejad's second and final term.

One Tehran resident reporting to the Tehran Bureau website tried to gauge interest.

"Among my colleagues no one wanted to vote," she said, though some might have to get the stamp on their identity cards that can help with administrative jobs.

"I called a friend this morning and asked about about 'great' presence at the voting station," the Tehrani wrote. "She said everyone was home and joked that her father was very eager to vote, which is why he was asleep until 10:30."

She visited more than a dozen polling stations, most in north Tehran, and found little activity except at Hosseiniyeh Ershad – a blue-tiled mosque favored for live TV shots and often crowded.

This Tehrani talked to an elderly woman monitoring the vote at Ershad: "She told me she had checked two schools in the neighborhood [used as polling places], but nothing was going on. She told the police who were guarding one of the school, 'Since no one is voting, you must force people to do so!'"

That picture matched that described by The Wall Street Journal, which had a correspondent in Tehran and reported "minimal" or no turnout in middle-class and affluent neighborhoods.

"One polling station in northern Tehran said by mid-afternoon that no one had cast a ballot in the giant plastic box set on the table," the Journal reported.

Journal correspondent Bill Spindle was among dozens of foreign journalists loaded onto buses, taken to three busy polling stations, "and warned not to visit others on their own."

One polling station in south Tehran was crowded all day during the 2009 presidential vote, "but today there is nothing of the sort," reported Tehran Bureau. "People come one by one and there is no crowd. Most people who do vote are old people and very religious women with chadors."

Turnout figures: 'at best, a partial truth'

The opposition boycott prompted widespread loathing online, with reformist parties banned and candidates not allowed to run or refusing to take part.

"Voting in a representative system means I have to choose someone to represent me [in parliament]," one Iranian journalist who did not vote wrote online, according to Reuters. "When the law says that my ideas are not allowed there, voting is totally meaningless."

So, too, may be the declared turnout results of today's election, according to author and journalist Azadeh Moaveni.

Ahmadinejad's contested 2009 reelection and its aftermath "has forever tainted confidence in Iran's electoral process," Ms. Moaveni wrote in the Guardian.

"We would all like to gauge where Iran is headed, and make better sense of what Iranians think," said Moaveni about sanctions, whether people blame the regime or the West, and the talk of war over Iran's nuclear program.

"As Iran's confrontation with the world grows more protracted and grave by the day, it is tempting to look to numbers and election results as a barometer of something," adds Moaveni. "But it would be a mistake to read anything into whatever turnout figures Tehran releases today. They will offer us, at best, a shaded and partial truth."

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