- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 15, 2008

TEHRAN (AP) — Hard-liners allied with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took a small lead in Iran’s parliamentary elections, according to partial results early today, but reformists showed strength in some cities where the clerical leadership allowed them to compete.

Reformist leaders had been pushing for Iranians to vote yesterday, hoping to prevent a sweep by Mr. Ahmadinejad’s allies after the country’s clerics threw many liberal candidates out of the race.

Results early today from 18 contests — out of 290 seats at stake — showed the hard-liners winning 11 provincial cities, reformists six and moderates one, the official IRNA and semi-official Fars news agencies reported. However, the returns were insufficient to determine a solid trend.

Despite the partial returns early today, final results will take days.

According to reformist leaders, their candidates were allowed to run in only about 90 of the races after their ranks were dramatically cut by the clerical disqualifications.

Many Iranians who support liberal reforms spent the day deliberating with friends and family, going back and forth between two options: vote and give legitimacy to an election many of them saw as unfair, or boycott and ensure an even stronger conservative domination of parliament.

IRNA quoted Interior Ministry officials as saying that the turnout was estimated between 55 to 65 percent, up from the 51 percent in 2004 elections.

Former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a member of the clerical leadership seen as a top rival of Mr. Ahmadinejad, tried to persuade those discouraged by the disqualifications to vote.

“To be reluctant and say ‘Why should we participate in the election?’ is a kind of self-destruction,” said Mr. Rafsanjani, according to the state news agency. “This will lead to the absence of their favorite candidates in the council.”

Perhaps the more crucial test will be of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s support among conservatives. Some have become disillusioned with the president since he came to office in 2005 and have formed a slate of candidates competing against a list of supporters of the president.

Conservative critics say Mr. Ahmadinejad has fumbled efforts to fix the economy of this oil-rich nation — hit by high inflation, unemployment and fuel shortages. They blame his fiery manner for worsening the standoff with the West, bringing on U.N. sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program.

Ahead of the vote, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — who has final say on political issues in Iran — appeared to give his support to the Ahmadinejad camp. He urged Iranians to elect the candidates the United States opposes and “whose loyalties are to Islam and justice.”

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack criticized the elections, saying “in essence the results … are cooked. They are cooked in the sense that the Iranian people were not able to vote for a full range of people.”

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