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Iranians Vote for New Parliament


Voters in Iran are going to the polls for an election that is expected to solidify the conservative majority in parliament, but also possibly strengthen critics of Iran's controversial president. VOA correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from our Middle East bureau in Cairo.

Politicians and clerical leaders from every political camp cast their own ballots as they urged Iranians to vote in an election that is likely to strengthen the conservatives' hold on parliament.

The election is largely a contest between two rival conservative factions, one more closely allied to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the other favoring a more pragmatic approach to issues such as Iran's dealings with the West over its nuclear program.

A two-stage vetting process disqualified hundreds of would-be candidates, including most of the well-known reformists. Some reformists decided to boycott the election, but key leaders of the reformist bloc urged their supporters to vote, hoping that a high turnout might counter the conservatives' dominance and give them at least a strong minority in parliament.

Reformist former President Mohammad Khatami called on his supporters to cast their ballots.

He said he hoped to see a "massive turnout" and hoped the elections would be "for the benefit of the country and the people."

Tight restrictions on the campaigns kept nominees from discussing some of the issues most important to voters, including the economy. Interest rates around 18 percent and high unemployment despite a boom in oil revenues have fueled discontent with the economic policies of President Ahmadinejad, even among his own supporters.

Another former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, is now a senior clerical leader seen as a reform-minded rival to Mr. Ahmadinejad. He urged people to vote and said Iran remains a "frontrunner in democracy" amongst its neighbors.

He urged outsiders "to judge Iran's election justly," and to compare it with elections in other countries of the region.

With most of their candidates sidelined, the reformists will struggle to hold onto even the seats they already have in the assembly. They say they have only been able to field contenders for about one-third of the 290 seats.

The poll is instead seen as a contest between rival camps that have emerged in the conservative movement that brought President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power three years ago.

Amal Hamada is an Iran specialist in the political science department at Cairo University.

"What will happen now is we're having a new group within the conservative camp who are less conservative, or more pragmatic if we can say that, who are willing to still work under the banner of the conservatives, still adopt the same big issues, but they may be able to differ a little bit in terms of techniques and political discourse," said Hamada.

One conservative faction, known as the United Front, includes allies of the president, while the other, called the Broad or Inclusive Coalition, includes some of his most prominent conservative rivals, including former nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani. That list also has the backing of the popular mayor of Tehran, Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf, who is thought to be a possible rival to Mr. Ahmadinejad in next year's presidential election.

The two camps differ on economic policies, as well as Iran's approach to dealing with the West regarding its nuclear program. Although the president's conservative rivals generally seem to share his goals for the program, they have disagreed with his aggressive tactics.

The voting process in some areas can be extremely complex and time-consuming. Voters in Tehran, for example, have to write out the names and numbers of 30 individual candidates. Final results are not expected for several days, but there could be partial results from some districts earlier.