First Results point to Iran conservative sweep
First results from Iran's disputed parliamentary election showed Islamic conservatives cruising to an expected crushing victory on Saturday on a higher turnout than boycotting reformists had hoped.
Interior Ministry figures showed that conservative opponents of President Mohammad Khatami's liberal reforms had won most of the first 71 provincial constituencies declared, out of 289 seats contested in Friday's poll.
Some 2,500 mainly reformist candidates, including 80 sitting deputies, had been disqualified by an unelected hard-line clerical watchdog, prompting the United States to brand the election neither free nor fair.
A conservative victory could spell an end to Khatami's seven-year experiment in allowing greater freedom of speech and loosening Islamic cultural and social restrictions, a drive that hard-liners have tried to obstruct at every turn.
The Interior Ministry issued no overall turnout figure but a senior government official told Reuters between 20 and 22 million of the 46 million eligible voters had cast ballots.
If confirmed, that would put the turnout at between 43 and 48 per cent, sharply down on the 67 per cent who voted in 2000, when Khatami's reformist allies won two thirds of the seats, but more than the 40 per cent or less that reformists had predicted.
The hard-line Guardian Council, which vets candidates and validates the results, gave a lower figure of 43 million for the electorate, which could enable it to claim a turnout of just over 50 per cent, a psychologically important threshold.
In a statement on its Web site, the Council said that by voting in large numbers, Iranians had "foiled all the plots and plans of the enemies of religion and the nation, including the Great Satan, America."
Iran's clerical rulers sought a high turnout to endorse the legitimacy of the Islamic system and, in the words of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, "slap America in the face."
They were trying to tap a deep vein of nationalism and suspicion of foreign interference among many Iranians.
Both the United States and the European Union voiced concern on Friday at the conduct of the poll, particularly the mass exclusion of reformist candidates.
"These actions do not represent free and fair elections and are not consistent with international norms," U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli told reporters.
The main reformist party, led by Khatami's brother Mohammad Reza, and the main pro-reform student movement boycotted the poll. In Tehran, where their support is strongest, a government source said turnout was a mere 1.7 million or 29 per cent.
But a member of the Guardian Council's supervisory board, Ahmad Azimzadeh, gave a higher turnout figure of 2.3 to 2.4 million in the capital.
Under the Iranian constitution, the government does not have to resign after parliamentary elections.
But a conservative majority in parliament would leave Khatami to serve out his final 16 months in office isolated in a state apparatus in which hard-liners already control the armed forces, Islamic militias, courts and supervisory watchdogs.
Some reformists say they fear a crackdown after the poll.
The hard-line judiciary this week closed down two of the last surviving pro-reform newspapers, an office of the main reformist party and its news Web Site -- all for reporting a critical letter to Khamenei by the disbarred deputies.