Millions of Iranians crowds rushed on Friday to cast their ballots in two high-stake elections after a week of ferocious campaigning between conservatives desperate to maintain their influence over the country’s political landscape and their reformist rivals seeking a comeback.
Voters are choosing new members of Iran’s 290-seat parliament, or Majlis, and 88 clergy for the influential Assembly of Experts, a clerical body that appoints the Supreme Leader.
The voting procedure has been extended as this is the first election since a deal with world powers over the country’s landmark nuclear program and the lifting of sanctions.
Some analysts regard the contest as a make-or-break moment that could shape the future for the next generation, in a country where nearly 60 per cent of the 80 million population is under 30.
Participation appeared enthusiastic and relaxed in the first polls as people queued outside some makeshift polling stations, usually mosques, in the morning as officials urged voters not to leave voting until late hours.
Polling stations across the country received voters from 8am and were due to continue until 6pm, but authorities extended voting by two hours to 8 p.m. (1630 GMT), citing a rush of people wanting to cast their ballot.
An hour before the original 6 p.m. expiry of voting, there were still lining up outside polling stations in the capital, and state television showed throngs of voters in Ahvaz and Shiraz. It was unclear how the turnout might shape the outcome.
Senior Iranian officials, including foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, cast their votes in the early hours of stations opening their doors.
“Whoever likes Iran and its dignity, greatness and glory should vote. Iran has enemies. They are eyeing us greedily,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said after casting his ballot, in a reference to Western powers.
“Turnout in the elections should be so high to disappoint our enemies … People should be observant and vote with open eyes and should vote wisely.”
While both bodies in the election are in the hands of hardliners, reformists have been pulling out all the stops to defeat a decade of conservative dominance over the two political institutions. Although many of their candidates have been disqualified, they have set aside inter-party differences and formed a coalition called “the list of hope” with moderates allied with President Hassan Rouhani in order to keep hardliners from entering the two bodies. The first candidate on their main list is the former presidential candidate Mohammad-Reza Aref.
Control of parliament will influence the ability of Rouhani, constrained so far, to fulfill his promises of greater freedoms and economic reforms – as well as his own chances of re-election next year.
The Guardian Council, appointed half by Khamenei and half by the ultra-conservative judiciary, disqualified thousands of candidates for the legislature and vetoed 80 per cent of those seeking election to the Assembly of Experts. They included Hassan Khomeini, the moderate grandson of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution and Khamenei’s predecessor.