TEHRAN, (Reuters) – Iranians voted on Friday in a run-off parliamentary election expected to leave conservatives still firmly in control after many moderates were disqualified in the first round.
Polling stations closed at 9 p.m. (1630 GMT), three hours after the scheduled closing time, state television said. Such extensions are common in Iranian elections to allow more voters to cast ballots.
Conservatives won a majority of seats in the 290-member parliament in the first round of the election in March, but in some places no candidate secured enough votes to win — hence the run-off.
Moderate opponents of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the vote was unfair because the unelected Guardian Council, which screens candidates on their commitment to Islam and Iran’s clerical system, barred many of them from running in March.
Reformists, who secured more than 30 seats in the first round, have called for a high turn-out to give the opposition a bigger voice.
Iranians voted to elect 82 lawmakers out of 164 candidates in 100 cities. The new parliament will begin work in May. “The turn-out is expected to be more than the turn-out in the 2004 run-off parliamentary vote, which was around 20 percent,” Alireza Afshar, head of the Interior Ministry’s election headquarters, told state television. “Counting of votes will start on Saturday.”
The turn-out in the March vote was around 60 percent.
Parliament does not determine policy in areas such as Iran’s disputed nuclear programme, oil or foreign affairs. It does, however, have an influence on economic policy.
The country’s most powerful figure, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and other officials urged Iranians to vote. Before the March vote, Khamenei, who usually prefers to stay above the political fray, called on voters to favour hardline candidates who supported the government.
Khamenei has the last word on all state matters including Iran’s nuclear programme, which the West fears is a cover to build nuclear bombs. Tehran says it wants nuclear power for electricity.
Ahmadinejad said parliament played a key role in Iran. “Parliament is very important in creating national unity and making decisions,” Ahmadinejad said after voting.
Hardline backers of Ahmadinejad support his no-compromise approach to the nuclear dispute with the West, but reformists and moderate conservatives blame him for provoking the U.N. Security Council to hit Iran with three rounds of sanctions.
Ahmadinejad, who won the presidency in 2005 pledging to share out Iran’s oil wealth more fairly, has come under mounting pressure from the public, top clerics and the outgoing assembly over his failure to rein in inflation, now over 20 percent.
Analysts say despite the conservatives’ dominance, the next parliament will be more vocal in its criticism of Ahmadinejad’s economic management because the conservative camp in the assembly includes not just his allies, but critics as well.
Rivals of Ahmadinejad, including former chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani who secured a seat in the first round, are looking beyond this vote to the 2009 presidential poll.