Reformists sidelined as Iran elects parliament

( AFP )- Iran on Friday voted in elections expected to tighten the grip of conservatives on parliament after a low-key campaign and the mass disqualification of reformist candidates by a hardline vetting body.

Iran's arch foe the United States condemned the elections as "cooked" after the Guardians Council vetoed hundreds of reformist candidates for being deemed insufficiently loyal to the Islamic revolution.

The sidelining of reformists means it will be difficult to use the vote as a barometer of controversial President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's popularity, despite discontent over inflation rates of almost 18 percent.

Officials predicted turnout would be higher than in past elections, after Iran's leaders called for massive participation to send a message of unity to the West at a time of mounting tension on the Iranian nuclear programme.

State television was playing patriotic music against a backdrop of pictures of Iran's ancient heritage and long queues of people voting in past elections in a bid to show the importance of the ballot.

"For our country and our nation this is a critical moment and day," said Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as he voted in Tehran. "The election is a time that determines the fate of a nation."

Deputy Interior Minister Ali Reza Afshar described the turnout as "glorious" while government spokesman Gholam Hossein Elham said the final numbers would top 60 percent.

The results are "cooked in the sense that the Iranian people were not able to vote for a full range of people," US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in reference to the disqualifications.

Polls had been due to close at 14:30 GMT but voting was extended by four hours to cope with extra numbers seeking to vote, officials said. The first results were expected Saturday but final figures not for several days.

The authorities will be hoping there is no repeat of the slack turnout in 2004, when barely half the electorate voted nationwide and less than 40 percent in Tehran.

"Why should I vote when I am buying rice for 30,000 rials (around three dollars) a kilo? They have already been elected. They are joking. They've deceived people and will continue to do so," said car dealer Seyyed Mohsen, 51.

"I will vote for the conservatives. Reformists have already proved they cannot govern properly and they did not pass the test," said merchant Mashallah Ghasemi, 64.

Reformists enjoyed their high point between 2000-2004 when they controlled parliament and their champion Mohammad Khatami was president.

But they were left with only a few dozen seats in parliament after the 2004 elections and the hardline Ahmadinejad took over the presidency a year later.

The two reformist coalitions have been able to field overlapping lists for the 30 seats available in Tehran but the pre-election vetting seriously hindered their ability to compete nationwide.

Khatami's main reformist coalition is fielding only 150 candidates for the 290 seats nationwide while the more centrist National Confidence party of ambitious cleric Mehdi Karroubi has 165.

"Some of our best forces have been barred and this is a reality," Karroubi told reporters.

The campaign, which only lasted one week, was a muted affair but turned fractious in its final days when conservatives accused top reformists of harbouring excessively close contacts with foreigners.

The authorities were keen to see as little inter-factional squabbling as possible amid the nuclear crisis with the West and banned groups from putting up large election posters of their candidates.

Analysts say it is impossible to predict whether Ahmadinejad -- who retains considerable support in the provinces -- will win 2009 elections to continue one of the most controversial presidencies in Iran's history.

Conservatives have split into "Broad" and "Unified" factions, with the former seen as less enthusiastic about the populist policies of Ahmadinejad although there is considerable overlap between the two.

Compared with other chambers in the region, the Iranian parliament wields a respectable amount of power but its capacities are limited by the unelected Guardians Council, which must approve all legislation.

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