Parliamentary elections in Iran end after 15 hours

( dpa )- Parliamentary elections ended Friday night in Iran after 15 hours following the interior ministry's decision to extend the voting time five times from 6 pm (1430 GMT) to 11 pm (1930 GMT) in response to what was proclaimed to be public demand.

4,400 candidates were running for a total of 290 seats.

The main race is between the ruling ultra-conservative faction close to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, reformists close to former president Mohammad Khatami and a conservative faction headed by former chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, which is critical of Ahmadinejad's economic policies.

As votes were being cast manually, first results from the provinces were expected to be announced by Saturday noon, while results for the politically important Tehran constituency were not expected before Monday.

The first Iranian to vote was Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who asked the people to determine their political future by going to the polls.

Former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani voted in the morning and called on the people to vote in order to strengthen the legislative power.

"If you do not vote, then those whom you do not want will get into the parliament again," said the cleric who is a strong opponent of Ahmadinejad.

"The new parliament should definitely increase its supervision (of the government's performance)," Rafsanjani added.

President Ahmadinejad cut short his state visit to Senegal to be in Tehran in time for the elections. Right after arrival he rushed to the Lorzadeh mosque in south-eastern Tehran where he also cast his vote.

"Billions of eyes (around the world) are focused on us to see how we determine our political destiny by ourselves in these elections," Ahmadinejad said.

"Many (Islamic) countries look for a model country (to follow) and have chosen Iran as their model," the president added.

The parliamentary elections are also widely regarded as a test for Ahmadinejad and an assessment of his performance in the last 30 months since his presidency.

The main concern of the voters is the economy after Ahmadinejad failed to realize his economic reforms. Despite drastically increasing oil prices, inflation - ranging between 20 to 30 per cent - is higher than before summer 2005.

Meanwhile Interior Minister Mostafa Poumohammadi told Press TV that final results would be announced within three or four days, starting first with the smaller provinces and later the big cities and at the end the Tehran constituency.

The votes in the provinces are counted by hand. In Tehran, counting has been computerized for the first time but there will be manual counting as well for confirmation.

In Tehran, witnesses reported that a large number of people had gone to the polling stations in the southern part of the capital early on Friday, while in northern Tehran people usually prefer to vote in the afternoon.

The elections were being held one week before the Persian New Year (March 21) and many Iranians were still busy with New Year shopping and preparations which might have a major impact on the turnout.

The interior ministry termed the turnout of the votes so far as " magnificent " and state media said that at least 60 per cent of the people are believed to have gone to the polling stations.

The claims of the Iranian officials could not be confirmed by neutral observers. However, during the presidential elections of June 2005, residents in Tehran refrained from going to the polling stations in the morning and afternoon but preferred to vote in the evening.

Therefore the interior ministry was expected to extend voting time at least until 10 pm local time (1830 GMT) if not until midnight (2030 GMT).

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