Iranians vote in parliamentary runoff elections
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- Iranians lined up at polling stations Friday for a second round of parliamentary elections seen by the country's leaders as endorsement of their controversial nuclear program, state media reported.
Conservative opponents of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have already won an outright majority of parliament seats in the first round of elections held in March. Only 65 seats in the 290-member legislature were up for grabs Friday and the outcome is expected to cement the victory of Ahmadinejad's opponents.
Throughout the day, state TV reported that across Tehran, polling stations were packed with people voting for 25 of the capital's 30 seats in the parliament. The other five were decided in the first round.
Ahmadinejad and his wife, Aazam Farahi, cast their ballots in the afternoon without making any remarks to waiting reporters, an unusually glum appearance for the normally talkative president.
Ahmadinejad was voted in for a second term in 2009 in a hotly disputed election with the backing of the clerical establishment. But he has seen his political fortunes decline sharply after he was perceived to have defied Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in April 2011 and tried to expand the authority of the presidency.
Polls closed at 9 p.m., after a three-hour extension to accommodate late voters, state TV said. Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar said results would be announced Saturday; the official IRNA news agency said early returns were expected later Friday.
The new parliament will begin its session in late May. It has no direct control over major policy matters like Iran's nuclear program, but it can influence the selection of Ahmadinejad's successor and other top officials and give backing to the policies of Khamenei.
Iranian leaders have showcased the voter turnout -- officially, 64 percent in the first round -- as a sign of trust in the clerical-led system and rejection of Western pressure over the nuclear issue.
The West suspects Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons and is demanding that Iran stop uranium enrichment. Iran has refused, saying its program is aimed at power generation and cancer treatment.
"My advice is that people take the runoff as seriously as the first round," Khamenei said in comments carried live by state television after he cast his vote.
Iran and world powers held a round of talks in April in Istanbul, the first in a year. Little progress was made beyond agreement to resume the discussions in Baghdad later this month. Iran has said it will ask the West to end or ease its sanctions, but Western nations have already rejected that.
A high voter turnout would boost Iranian negotiators ahead of the talks in Baghdad, according to Ali Reza Khamesian, a political analyst in Tehran.
"Iran's leaders want to announce to the world that they have huge support from the people, and a high turnout will serve this," Khamesian said.
Of the 130 candidates, two for each of the 65 seats, 69 are conservative opponents of Ahmadinejad, about 26 favor the president and the rest are centrists. Although Ahmadinejad is likely to serve until the end of his term in August 2013, his allies have been pushed out of key posts and his political clout has been weakened.
This will sour what's left of his term in office, said Hamid Reza Shokouhi, also an analyst in Tehran. "Within the remaining time left for Ahmadinejad, there will be a lot of confrontation between his administration and the new parliament," he said.
Some of the voters said they were voting over economic issues. Several rounds of U.N. sanctions over the nuclear issue have hit Iran hard, contributing to double-digit inflation and unemployment.
"In the first round I voted for those who resisted the inflation-creating policy of Ahmadinejad's administration," said Reza Behjatpour, a 20-year-old university student.
Laborer Morteza Riahei, 30, said he voted for those that will create more jobs. "Ahmadinejad could not bring more jobs. We need some people in the parliament to push him in a right direction," he said.