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Iran: Conservatives Claim Victory, But President Faces New Challenges

Voting in Tehran on March 14 (AFP) Iran's Interior Ministry says conservative allies of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad have received 70 of the 190 parliamentary seats decided so far, although full results from the March 14 national elections have not been announced.

Although reformists are questioning the vote count, it was clear before the vote that the president's allies -- who call themselves "principle-ists" to emphasize their loyalty to what they regard as the Islamic republic's values -- would fare well. The Guardians Council -- an unelected body of jurists and clerics answerable only to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- had barred hundreds of opposition reformists from running on grounds they were insufficiently loyal to Islam or the 1979 revolution.

Because of those disqualifications, the EU Presidency called the elections "neither free nor free" -- a judgment rejected by Iran's Foreign Ministry as "hasty, politically motivated, opportunistic, and hence unacceptable."

Nonetheless, the question now is how the results bode for Ahmadinejad's future ahead of next year's vital presidential election, when he is expected to run for a second four-year term.

Many observers say the election results do not necessarily mean the political atmosphere in the new Majlis will be the same as in the outgoing parliament -- or that all conservative deputies will necessarily back Ahmadinejad's policies.

Isa Sahakhiz, a Tehran-based independent journalist, tells Radio Farda that the president and his government will face challenges from the new legislature. Sahakhiz says those challenges will come not only from some 50 reformists and a group of independents in the Majlis, but from some conservatives themselves.

"The issue is there are some moderate people and Mr. Ahmadinejad's rivals among the [conservatives] who have been elected to the parliament," Sahakhiz says. "I think the government is going to face serious challenges, especially during discussions over the economy. In some cases, the situation would go to the brink of crisis."

Some prominent conservatives apparently share the same viewpoint.

Ali Larijani, a conservative who secured an impressive victory in the religious city of Qom, warned the results "should not lead to arrogance" among conservatives. Larijani, Iran's former top nuclear negotiator, predicted that the new Majlis would be "much more effective than the current one, and give priority to national interests."

Larijani belongs to those conservatives known as "revisionists." They backed Ahmadinejad at the beginning of his presidency, but later distanced themselves over his uncompromising stance on the nuclear issues as well as his economic policies.

Many Iranians blame Ahmadinejad for high unemployment and inflation that has soared reportedly to as high as 20 percent.

Larijani will head a powerful bloc of more pragmatic conservatives inside the new parliament, and according to some media reports he may be offered the post of speaker of the Majlis. The two blocs of conservatives are expected to occupy about two-thirds of parliament after runoffs are held.

The speaker of the current Majlis, Gholam-Ali Hadad-Adel, is another critic of the president's approach to economic issues. Hadad-Adel, reelected in a landslide in Tehran, said his faction does not intend to have disputes with the president but added that it "will not blindly approve all the government's decisions, either."

Both Larijani and Hadad-Adel, as well as former reformist President Mohammad Khatami, are seen by many as potential candidates in the 2009 presidential vote. So is the mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, also seen as a pragmatic conservative.

With such powerful rivals reportedly lining up for a run at the presidency, observers inside Iran say that Ahmadinejad is far from guaranteed reelection next year despite his allies' victory on March 14.

So as one election comes to a close, the campaign for another seems to have already begun.

With additional wire reports

Recent Majlis Elections

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."