Iranians vote in parliament elections
(AP) - Iranians voted Friday in elections likely to yield little change: Conservatives and allies of the hardline president are expected to retain control of parliament after many reformists were barred from even running.
As polls opened, state radio urged a strong turnout so that Iranians could present a unified front to the West. "Iranians will go to ballots to send a message to those who are not able to see unity of Iranians behind (the country's) achievements," it said.
The Islamic republic's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, cast his vote at a religious center next to his residence in Iran, tucking a folded paper into a transparent plastic box.
Khamenei has said that Iranians should bring to parliament anti-U.S. candidates "whose loyalties are to Islam and justice."
Some 4,500 candidates nationwide are running for parliament's 290 seats in Friday's vote. But reformists say they don't have candidates in around 200 of the races after Iran's hardline clerical leadership eliminated most of their top contenders.
The Guardian Council - an unelected body of clerics and jurists - disqualified around 1,700 candidates, mostly reformists, on the grounds they were insufficiently loyal to Islam or Iran's 1979 revolution. The reformist candidates who remain are mostly little-known to the public.
The disqualifications have divided reform supporters. Some have decided to boycott the vote.
"We can't bring deep democratic changes within the ruling establishment through the ballot box," said Hadi Rezaei, a 29-year-old computer technician in Tehran. "Once, I used to vote for reformers but it didn't work. The Guardian Council has already decided the elections."
But reform leaders are pressing their backers to go to the polls, hoping that with a large turnout they can at least build a strong minority in parliament, rather than the handful of seats they now have.
"It is not a fair or free election but I will still vote," said Ahmad Moshkelati, who writes for the pro-reform newspaper Mardomsalari or Democracy. "Boycotting the vote only strengthens hard-liners."
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's allies also face a challenge from conservatives who have grown disillusioned with the fiery president since he took office in 2005.
The president's popularity has been hurt by the country's ailing economy, high unemployment and fuel shortages. Some former conservative allies accuse Ahmadinejad of worsening the problem with his policies. They also accuse him of limiting decision-making to a limited clique of hard-liners, without taking into account advice of more moderate conservatives.
An estimated 44 million Iranians of over 18 years of age are eligible to vote. Turnout is a key issue. In 2004 elections, which were swept by hardliners after most reform candidates were barred from the race, turnout was around 51 percent.
In previous votes won by reformists, it was closer to 80 percent. Reformists say they have the support of a silent majority that, if it votes, swings elections to them.