Iran today began declaring a "high turnout" less than 90 minutes after polls opened for parliamentary elections, a vote leaders have cast as crucial proof of popular support for their regime.
State-run broadcasters trumpeted what they called a "new wave of Islamic democracy" that would serve as a "model" for the rest of the Islamic world, but made no mention of the fact that opposition reformists have been purged from politics, their candidates banned from this election, and their popular leaders under house arrest.
"The higher the turnout, the better for the future, prestige, and security of our country," Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said after casting his ballot. "The vote always carries a message for our friends and our enemies."
Ayatollah Khamenei said it was a "duty and right" of Iranians to vote, and made clear this election comes at a "more sensitive period," because Iran is being targeted over its nuclear program and for confronting the West.
Officials claimed Iranians were taking heed.
Turnout was "remarkable and enemy-breaking [and] unparalleled," the head of the Election Commission, Seyed Solat Mortazavi, declared, according to an Al Jazeera translation of a Fars News Agency report. "The prediction is that the nation will inscribe a new record in the political history of Iran."
The semi-official Fars News also reported that "high and fervent turnout" caused ballot papers to run out within hours in Tabriz, in northwestern Iran.
One official reportedly likened every vote cast to a "nuclear bomb dropped on our enemies."
Soon after polls opened, Iran's Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar noted that Khamenei compared voting to the obligation of daily prayers, and said Iranians "will renew their connection" to all the sanctities of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution and confirm it is on the "right path."
The election is the first since 2009, when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the landslide victor against a less conservative rival, the former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, who is now under house arrest.
Millions took to the streets in protest for months, charging election fraud and asking "Where is my vote?" Scores if not hundreds died in the crackdown, searing the event into the collective consciousness of Iranians across the political spectrum.
By calling for a mass turnout today, Iran's conservative leaders are trying to overcome the gap of trust created in 2009, when it destroyed the "virus" – in the words of a Basij militia commander – of the opposition Green Movement.
Since then, politics in Iran has been transformed. In keeping with opposition calls for a boycott, many reform-leaning Iranians stayed at home for today’s vote, judging by their negative comments on social media sites and the virtual absence at polling stations of more Westernized Iranians – one relatively obvious sign of some opposition supporters. Reuters reported sparse voting in wealthier northern Tehran.
One grandfather told a correspondent for Tehran Bureau website: “War hasn’t broken out yet but the famine that comes with it is already upon us. Vote?”
Instead, the conservative cut of the voters who stood in lines to vote – as shown on Iranian state TV – reflected the nature of the hard-line political factions which alone are contesting this vote.
Still, former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has been increasingly marginalized after appearing to side with the protesters in 2009, voted with a blank look on his face.
In a barely disguised swipe at potential manipulation of the vote, Ayatollah Rafsanjani said: "God willing, the election result is what the people want and what they place in the ballot boxes."
The son of another Green Movement leader, cleric and former presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi, who is also under house arrest, told an opposition website: "Forces sympathetic to the country cannot participate in an exhibition that does not have the proper conditions ... the results are decided beforehand."
Clearly anxious about international reporting on the vote, Iranian news outlets boasted that 350 foreign journalists were on hand to witness the election – though one of the foreign journalists to actually get a visa, Ivan Watson of CNN, reported that journalists were required to travel on official buses to venues.
In the late afternoon, Jason Rezaian, an American-born freelance journalist based in Tehran, tweeted that “visiting foreign journalists covering the election in Tehran have all been sent back to their hotels and told to stay put.”
Ahmadinejad vs. supreme leader
The mechanics of the vote include 3,269 candidates vetted to run for 290 seats, with Iran's 48 million eligible voters using some 47,000 fixed and mobile polling stations.
But more than 2,000 potential candidates were banned from taking part – many of them reform-leaning – including 33 sitting members of parliament deemed unfit to keep their seats.
While actual turnout is expected by analysts to be low in big cities such as Tehran, which have shown an affinity for reformist candidates in past elections, the rural and small-town vote is a different matter – especially in these parliamentary elections, where elected members of parliament will be expected to deliver local goods and services.
For many, the overall strategic battle in these elections, being waged among the political elite, between supporters of rivals Khamenei and his unpredictable President Ahmadinejad, may barely register.
"In the minds of how many people is it clear that the clash is between Ahmadinejad and the Leader?" asks a Tehran based analyst who asked not to be named.
The analyst recently traveled to rural areas far outside Tehran, where the owner of a remote guesthouse praised Ahmadinejad as a man who brought his family of six relative wealth, with payments made to every citizen as part of a scheme to reduce subsidies.
Says the analyst: "My impression is that, in the minds of ordinary people they are all the same. [They say] 'If Ahmadinejad is good, and he supports the Leader, then [opponents] are telling lies. Ahmadinejad and the Leader are the same, the talk of divisions are not true and the work of enemies, so don't listen to it.'"
That dynamic means it is not clear what results will be announced in an election that will shape Iran's political future ahead of next year's presidential elections.
"While the Guardian Council has already disqualified many Ahmadinejad-backed candidates in large cities, his allies still have a solid chance to win seats in small provincial cities where the vote is less politicized and more focused on economic concerns," note Reza Marashi and Angie Ahmadi of the National Iranian American Council in a Huffington Post analysis.
While Ahmadinejad will not be eligible for reelection when his second term ends in 2013, if his allies make a strong showing in today's parliamentary election, the coming year could see a heightening of tension between the rival factions of the president and the supreme leader.