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Iran: All Sides Pin Hopes On Turnout, Despite Imbalances --> A member of the Revolutionary Guard casts his ballot in Tehran (AFP) Conservatives and reformists alike were urging voters to turn out to cast their ballots in Iran's parliamentary elections in a show of national unity amid economic setbacks and mounting international pressure on Iran over its nuclear program.

With many Iranians out shopping in preparation for the Persian New Year, polling hours were extended to allow voters time to cast ballots. The government kept polling stations open until 11 p.m. (1930 GMT), five hours later than planned. Counting was to start at midnight, state media said.

Officials said turnout exceeded the 50 percent of four years ago, and some reports pegged it as high as 60 percent

Interior Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi said some results would be announced early on March 15, but Tehran might take longer.

A few anti-Ahmadinejad politicians said unofficial exit polls suggested that the United Front, the most pro-government group of candidates, was doing well in Tehran. Conservatives held 26 of the capital's 30 seats in the outgoing assembly.

Some 44 million eligible voters were choosing among an estimated 4,500 candidates, most of them conservatives, in the running for 290 seats in the Majlis, or parliament.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other senior Iranian leaders had called for a massive turnout -- a call that was echoed by some senior reformist figures, including former President Mohammad Khatami, despite the mass disqualification of reformist and other candidates from running in the eighth parliamentary elections since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

"I advise our dear nation that they should realize their value and with their vote, determination and effort, decide the future of Iran for the next four years," Khamenei said after casting his ballot.

Still, many Iranians have complained about a lack of choice after the Guardians Council -- an unelected body of clerics and jurists -- disqualified some 1,700 mostly moderate candidates on the grounds that they were insufficiently loyal to Islam or Iran's 1979 revolution.

Fighting The Odds

The council denied the vetting process was biased, even though it left reformists with no hope for a majority in the Majlis. Indeed, they were likely to struggle to retain the estimated 40 seats they held in parliament.

But former Tehran Mayor Gholamhossein Karbaschi, a leading reformist, told Radio Farda that reformists and their supporters stood to gain more by taking part in the polls than by sitting them out, as some government critics had called for. "All groups, even those who in the previous elections experienced losses from not participating, this time have strongly asked people to take part in the elections, even if they can send only one representative to the Majlis," Karbaschi said.

Karbaschi was one of the leading supporters of Khatami's first presidential campaign in 1997. Khatami last week urged voters to turn out to back reformists, who are represented by two main coalitions. They say they seek democratic openings at home and less confrontational policies abroad.

But given the reformists' broad exclusion from these polls, critics have wondered what impact they could possibly have on the future parliament. Karbaschi, criticizing Western media including Radio Farda, said moderates stood to wield important influence on Iranian affairs even if they remained in the minority.

"It is only natural, even for a minority, to influence the government's plans and conduct, and to challenge any shortcomings they see," Karbaschi said. "It is not that minorities don't have a role. Everywhere in the world, if the minority knows what to do, it can be effective. But, here, some don't want to see a strong minority made up of reformers, so they perpetually say that such a minority of reformists cannot be instrumental and or effective. It's simply not like that, and we think otherwise."

A government spokesman, Gholam Hossein Elham, said on election day that turnout was expected to top 60 percent. His estimation was in line with predictions earlier in the week by Iranian state television.

Only 51 percent of voters cast ballots in the last parliamentary polls in 2004, when the Guardians Council also barred many reformists from running.

The Associated Press, however, reported that a handful of voters showed up at many polling stations in Tehran in a sign of frustration with a vote that allies of hard-line President Mahmud Ahmadinejad are expected to dominate. AP reported that where lines did form in the capital, it was at a few major mosques, where most voters backed pro-Ahmadinejad candidates.

Presidential Bellwether

The elections are seen as a test of Ahmadinejad's strength ahead of next year's presidential polls. Ahmadinejad has been frequently targeted by political opponents over alleged mismanagement of the economy -- including runaway prices and fuel shortages -- and his confrontational approach to foreign policy. He is expected to face a challenge from moderate conservatives led by Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, the former chief of Revolutionary Guards Mohsen Rezaie, and former nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani.

There are two coalitions of moderates: the Reformist Coalition inspired by reformist ex-President Khatami, and the National Confidence Party led by the former speaker of the parliament, Mehdi Karroubi.

RFE/RL correspondent Iraj Gorgin contributed to this report. Radio Farda’s Fereidoon Zarnegar interviewed Karbaschi

Recent Majlis Elections

In the last parliamentary elections, in 2004, conservative opponents of reformist President Mohammad Khatami captured an overwhelming majority of the seats at stake -- including in liberal-leaning Tehran. A runoff strengthened conservatives' hand, increasing their total to 190, while reformists held 50 seats, independents 45, and religious minorities five.

Disqualifications Authorities reportedly had barred some 2,500 reform-minded candidates from competing.

Perceptions Abroad The voting was seen as cementing hard-liners' grip on power while delivering a sharp rebuke to Khatami, whose moderate image had provided hope for supporters of economic liberalization. The European Union decried the voting as undemocratic before final results had even come in, warning of a fallout.

In the parliamentary elections of 2000, would-be reformers backing Khatami crush conservatives in February 2000 to take control of parliament on the back of an election turnout of over 67 percent, handing Khatami a mandate to carry out his program of social, political, and economic reforms. The showing meant that hard-liners were ousted from control of parliament for the first time since the 1979 revolution. After a runoff, reformists ended up with 170 seats, conservatives 45, and independents 10.

Disqualifications The Guardians Council had eventually disqualified nearly 700 candidates from the running.

Perceptions Abroad EU members had decided to normalize relations with Tehran after Khatami's accession to the presidency. The United States called the result a "hopeful sign for the West" and expressed cautious encouragement for the "reformists."