Iran votes in test for Ahmadinejad
TEHRAN - Agence France-Presse
Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani casts his vote at a polling station at the Massoumeh shrine in the religious city of Qom, 130 kms south of Tehran, on March 2, 2012. AFP PhotoIran today voted for a new parliament in the first nationwide elections since a bitterly contested 2009 poll that returned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power, posing a new test of his support among conservatives.
The elections, to fill the 290 seats in parliament, were being boycotted by Iran's main opposition and reformist groups, the leaders of which have been under house arrest for the past year.
Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei cast his ballot with an appeal to all the 48-million strong electorate to also vote to boost "the future, prestige, security and immunity of the country," according to state television.
The elections are essentially a struggle between conservatives who back Ahmadinejad and a hardline current that despises him. Each claims superior fealty to Khamenei.
While the outcome will not affect Iran's foreign policy -- which is decided by Khamenei -- it was expected to set the political scene for the 2013 presidential election, when Ahmadinejad is to step down after reaching the end of his term limit.
Unlike in the wake of Ahmadinejad's disputed 2009 re-election victory, which the opposition said resulted from voter fraud, no protests were expected in these elections.
But police said they were "fully prepared" for any problems.
The US-based rights group Human Rights Watch called the elections "grossly unfair" because the limited list of approved candidates overwhelmingly skewed the vote in favour of conservative regime supporters.
"Iranian authorities have stacked the deck by disqualifying candidates and arbitrarily jailing key members of the reform movement," the group's Middle East director, Joe Stork, said in a statement.
The Guardian Council, which vetted the 3,400 candidates allowed to run and which will validate the results, predicted that the turnout "will be more glorious than in the previous (legislative) elections" in 2008, when 55 percent of voters were said by the interior ministry to have participated.
One polling station official who declined to be identified refused to tell AFP how many ballot papers had been used in his locale.
"We are not allowed to give numbers. Numbers will be announced later by official media," he said.
Final official results of the elections are to be announced Sunday or Monday.
Many voters echoed Khamenei's assertion that their turnout was a blow to the West, which was subjecting Iran to sanctions over its disputed nuclear programme.
Voting was "a slap in the face of arrogance," one voter in Tehran, 19-year-old teacher Mohammad Mehdi Bahrambeygi, told AFP, repeating Khamenei's phrase referring to the West.
But Iran's economy -- which suffers high inflation and unemployment and is hurting from severe Western sanctions -- was the overriding preoccupation for most voters.
"I want this election to curb inflation. Look, it costs a lot to buy groceries even at the municipality (wholesale) shopping hub," said shopkeeper Amir Tobkaboni, 40.
Javaher Eslami, a 77-year-old housewife at a polling station in the east of the city, said she hoped the election would "help the young get better employment opportunities -- my kids have no job." Mehdi Zolfi, a 35-year-old government employee voting in the company of his wife and child, said he was motivated by "youth employment and improving the nation's economy." Mohammad Ali Parvazdavani, an 18-year-old student voting for the first time, said the incoming MPs "should be brave and say what the real problems are and try to solve unemployment, and fix the economy to the best of their ability." Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former conservative president who has taken a distance from Khamenei, was reported by the ISNA news agency as saying: "God willing, we will have a good Majlis (parliament), should the election result be what the people want and be how they cast their votes in the ballot boxes." The vote was being held amid high international tensions over Iran, with much of the West fearing Tehran was trying to develop the ability to make atomic weapons.
The United States and Europe have imposed punishing sanctions on Iran's economy, driving its currency down, closing international banking channels and making Tehran increasingly difficult for it to sell its oil.
Israel has threatened military action against Iranian nuclear facilities.
Tehran, which denies it seeks an atomic arsenal, has responded to the pressure and Israeli threat with menaces of its own.
It has said it could close the strategic Strait of Hormuz at the entrance to the Gulf, helping to send global oil prices sharply higher. It has also warned of a "devastating" military response if Israel attacks.