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Critics of Ahmadinejad show strength in Iran parliament vote

Sunday, March 16, 2008

TEHRAN, Iran -- Conservative opponents of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made a strong showing in Iran's parliamentary elections, according to partial results Saturday. The split could mean friction between the president and former supporters disillusioned by his fiery, populist rule.

Reformists, meanwhile, claimed to have made better than expected gains even though most of their candidates were thrown out of the race by Iran's clerical leadership.

If reformists succeed in expanding the largely muted bloc of around 40 lawmakers they had in the outgoing parliament, it would be a blow to hard-line attempts to bury the movement, which calls for reducing the power of clerics and opening up to the West.

The Interior Ministry put turnout in Friday's vote at around 60 percent -- up from 51 percent in 2004 parliament elections. Grouping all conservative factions together, it said they had won just more than 70 percent of the seats so far with most of the nation counted, without giving an exact number.

Iran's leaders depicted the rise as a show of confidence in the Islamic republic and of defiance against criticism of the vote by the United States, which said Iran's clerical leaders "cooked the vote."

"The history-making Iranian nation protected its identity, ideals and all its rights, especially the right to exploit nuclear energy," Ahmadinejad said.

But the differences among conservatives could prove significant.

Ahmadinejad's allies were on track to grab the largest share of the 290-member parliament. But they appeared likely to face a strong minority of conservative opponents, and perhaps of reformists.

If that happens, "large disputes will flare up" in the coming parliament, said political analyst Saeed Laylaz. "Ahmadinejad will not bow to demands by the parliament, and legislators will change his bills based on their wishes."

It could also encourage a conservative challenge to Ahmadinejad in presidential elections in 2009.

Returns from Friday's voting rolled in from many parts of the country, but the biggest prize -- Tehran, with 30 seats -- was still up in the air. It could take another day at least to count votes there.

In the 158 parliament seats decided so far, pro-Ahmadinejad hard-liners won 57 seats, while a slate seen as representing his conservative critics seized 40, according to results announced by state television and the official news agency IRNA.

Reformists won 24 seats, according to the results. Another 37 winners were independents whose political leanings were not immediately known. Races for more than 30 seats will go to a run-off vote scheduled for April.

Reformist spokesman Nasseri said the movement had won at least 34 seats so far. He explained the discrepancy by saying many pro-reform candidates ran as independents.

"We won in an unequal competition. We proudly announce victory," Nasseri told reporters. "Supporters of government faced a significant defeat."

Reformists were hamstrung entering the race after the unelected cleric-run Guardian Council, used its powers to disqualify 1,700 candidates on grounds of insufficient loyalty to Islam or Iran's 1979 revolution. Most of them were reformists.

Factions in Iran are notoriously murky. In general, reformists want to reduce the powers of the clergy, who can overrule the elected parliament and president. Reformists also seek democratic reforms at home and improved ties with the West, including the United States.

Conservatives are avid supporters of clerical rule, want stricter Islamic social controls -- such as on women's dress -- and generally back a tough stance toward the United States.

But Ahmadinejad has opened divisions within the camp since 2005, when he rode to office on populist vows to help the poor and re-establish the strict ideals of Iran's Islamic revolution.

In the past two years, the economy has been hit by a jump in inflation and increasing unemployment. His government has had to impose fuel rationing in the oil-rich country, and there were heating oil shortages during this year's unusually cold winter.

His critics accuse him of having no clear plan for fixing the economy, relying instead on injections of oil money. They say he governed unevenly, ignoring laws passed by the conservative-dominated parliament and making administrative changes without consultation.

Some also say his harsh rhetoric -- including vows that one day Israel will be wiped out and statements casting doubt on the holocaust -- have needlessly heightened the standoff with the West. Though they back pushing ahead with Iran's nuclear program, they blame Ahmadinejad's fiery stances for helping bring U.N. sanctions.

One force uniting conservatives, however, is supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who holds the final word on all state issues. He has tried to balance between conservative factions, while making clear his backing for Ahmadinejad. Ahead of Friday's vote, he called on Iranians to elect candidates who would "pave the government's path."

Still, despite their differences, moderate conservatives may work with reformists in parliament to improve the economy and "impose more discipline on the economic policy of Ahmadinejad," Laylaz said.

Two leading figures -- Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf and former top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani -- have been touted as possible rivals to Ahmadinejad in the 2009 presidential vote.

Larijani, who left the nuclear post after differences with Ahmadinejad, won a seat in the clerical city of Qom, according to state television. Some of his backers want him to take the parliament speaker or deputy speaker post, now held by Ahmadinejad allies, which could serve as platform to run for the presidency.


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