TEHRAN, (Reuters) – Conservatives took an early lead in an election for Iran’s 290-seat parliament with 108 seats to 33 for their reformist opponents, Iran’s state Press TV said on Saturday, citing unofficial results so far.
Friday’s election was seen as likely to keep conservatives in control of parliament, while adding more voices critical of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s economic policies.
Many reformists, seeking political and social change and trying to capitalise on public discontent over inflation, were blocked from standing in the polls.
Conservative politician Shahabeddin Sadr said 70 percent of winners so far were “principlists” — a label conservatives use to describe their loyalty to the Islamic Republic’s ideals. He did not say how many seats had been decided.
Sadr is the secretary of the United Front, the biggest and most pro-government conservative group, which confusingly includes both backers and critics of Ahmadinejad.
Sadr, quoted by the state’s IRNA news agency, said most of the “principlists” elected were United Front candidates.
Even if conservatives keep the upper hand in parliament, some reformists expected Ahmadinejad to face sharper scrutiny. “The president will face more challenges with the next parliament than he did with the current one,” said Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a close ally of reformist ex-President Mohammad Khatami.
An Iranian political analyst, who asked not to be named, also predicted that the next parliament would give Ahmadinejad a rougher ride. He said splits had opened up among conservatives jockeying for position before the 2009 race for the presidency.
A senior reformist politician said reformists, despite the hurdles, had done well in cities. He forecast they would win 50 to 70 seats, up from about 40 that they held before.
Direct comparison with the previous assembly is complicated by fluid factional loyalties and a large group of independents. “We are planning to join hands with some independents and that will make us stronger, especially because conservatives have deep divisions among themselves,” said the reformist politician, an ex-government official who asked not to be named.
Reformists and some conservatives have accused Ahmadinejad of fuelling inflation, now at 19 percent, by lavish spending of Iran’s windfall oil revenues on subsidies, loans and handouts.
Pro-reform politicians have also rebuked Ahmadinejad for vitriolic speeches that have kept Iran on a collision course with the United Nations over Tehran’s disputed nuclear plans.
Some conservatives, such as former nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani who Fars News Agency said won a seat in Qom south of Tehran, have also questioned the president’s approach. However, Ahmadinejad has won public backing from Iran’s top authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, especially for his handling of the nuclear row.
Hasan Khanlou, spokesman at the Interior Ministry’s election headquarters, said more than 65 percent of the Islamic Republic’s 44 million eligible voters had cast ballots.
The government had called for a high turnout to show Iran’s “enemies” in the West that the system enjoyed popular legitimacy. Reformists had also urged their supporters to vote to deny conservatives clear dominance in the next parliament.
The United States, Iran’s harshest Western critic, said the vetting process for candidates meant the outcome of voting in the world’s fourth largest oil-producing country was “cooked”.
The Guardian Council, a body of clerics and jurists, barred many reformists when it screened potential candidates on criteria such as commitment to Islam and the clerical system.
Washington has led international efforts to penalise Iran for failing to allay suspicions that it is seeking nuclear weapons. Tehran says its nuclear programme is purely civilian.
The U.N. Security Council has imposed three rounds of sanctions on Iran for refusing to halt sensitive nuclear work.