TEHRAN, Iran – Torn between a reformist boycott and calls by conservatives to give "a slap to America's face," Iranians voted Friday in elections likely to return the nation's legislature to Islamic hard-liners.
With thousands of reform candidates disqualified — and the ballot weighted with conservatives — the fight was more about how many votes will be cast for the 290-seat parliament than who would win. Turnout was being watched as a test of public sentiment.
Conservatives responded to the boycott with the full power of state media: nonstop radio and television coverage with pro-vote comments from citizens and leaders and claims of a massive turnout. At a mosque in central Tehran (search), loudspeakers broadcast voting appeals.
Boycott-backers resorted to smaller methods, using e-mail, Web sites and a blitz of mobile phone text messages to press a protest called after clerics banned 2,400 liberals from running. The main Web site of the Islamic Participation Front (search), the biggest reformist group, appeared blocked by state-imposed filters.
Polls closed after staying open four extra hours in most provinces — two hours beyond the maximum allowed by law — an apparent attempt by hard-liners to ensure the highest possible turnout.
More than 46 million people aged 15 and over are eligible to vote, but it was difficult to independently gauge turnout. About 150,000 police were stationed around the country, and there were no immediate reports of violence.
Some downtown Tehran polls were empty, but other areas around the country reported a steady flow of voters. Iranians voted at mosques, desert outposts for nomads and even cemeteries for those making traditional weekly visit to graves.
Iran's hard-line clerical leadership seeks a significant voter response to demonstrate its enduring strength 25 years after the Islamic Revolution.
Reformists' strength in a nation with so many young voters — about half of Iran's 65 million people are under 25 — also is being tested: They hope young people will boycott, heeding their complaint that clerics rigged the vote to regain the legislative control they lost four years ago for the first time since 1979.
"The lower the numbers, the bigger the reformers' silent victory," said political analyst Davoud Hermidas Bavand.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (search) — the country's top political and religious authority — voted about 30 minutes after polls opened Friday morning.
"You see how those who are against the Iranian nation and the revolution are trying so hard to prevent people from going to the polls," Khamenei told state television in Tehran. "I do not think these enthusiastic young people will be prevented from fulfilling their duty."
Reformist President Mohammad Khatami, who bowed to pressure from clerics and urged a large turnout, was grim-faced as he voted. "Whatever the result of the elections, we must accept it," he said at a polling station.
Reformers hope voter participation falls by at least half in their urban strongholds, including the capital, Tehran. Parliament elections in 2000 attracted more than 67 percent of voters nationwide and almost 47 percent in Tehran province.
Liberal candidates blacklisted by the conservative theocracy included the core ranks of reformist activists and politicians demanding ruling clerics cede some of their almost limitless powers. More than half of the more than 5,000 names on the ballot were hard-liners; only about 200 were pro-reformists; others were moderates.
Hard-line-controlled state television broadcast a stream of comments from people saying that voting would show Iran's defiance against "enemies" — meaning the United States.
"We can gouge out the eyes of the enemy," one man in northern Iran told state TV. "Each vote is like a slap to America's face."
About 20 conservative girls wearing black chadors waited to vote at a polling station in Tehran. "I'm voting for the first time," said 16-year-old Sara Nazari. "This is a very important moment for the country."
At a mosque in an upscale neighborhood of the capital, four voters came during a half-hour in late afternoon. One said his father forced him to vote. At the same time, more than 30 people voted at a site in a more conservative district near the Tehran bazaar.
At both places, turnout appeared lighter than during presidential elections in 2001, local journalists said. State television included an English-language news scroll in an apparent effort to persuade foreign journalists that turnout was huge.
In northeastern Iran, where train cars derailed and exploded earlier this week, killing 320 people and injuring more than 400, residents were mourning and voting was especially sparse.
No voting took place in Dehnow, the hardest hit village. A mosque turned polling station near the accident site was deserted by afternoon. Mobile polling stations in other surrounding villages also were empty.
A landslide win four years ago gave reformists a majority in parliament. But all attempts at significant changes to the Islamic state were blocked by the non-elected clerical authorities led by Khamenei, whose backers consider him answerable only to God.
Billboards and pamphlets carried statements from the leader of the 1979 revolution, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, equating voting with patriotism.
"Some people are whispering not to vote. They are traitors to Islam and the country," Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati told worshippers at Friday prayers at Tehran University. Jannati leads the powerful, Khamenei-appointed Guardian Council (search).
No newspapers published Friday, as usual. On Thursday, the few major pro-reform newspapers in Tehran were banned from publishing. Earlier, the two dailies — Yas-e-nou and Sharq — published portions of a statement from pro-reform lawmakers attacking Khamenei and saying freedom was being "trampled in the name of Islam."
Judiciary agents also searched and closed an election monitoring office of the Islamic Participation Front. The group's headquarters, however, continued operating.