Local Elections Draw Heavy Voter Turnout in Iran

Iranians voted heavily Friday in local council elections that could be a gauge of popular dissatisfaction with hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and of reformists' potential to rebuild their suppressed movement.

The government twice extended polling — to a total of three hours extra — to allow long lines of voters to get through the polling stations in the capital, Tehran.

The head of the electoral organization, Deputy Interior Minister Mojtaba Samareh Hashemi, told state TV that many stations had asked for more ballot papers as they had run out.

"The number of voters has exceeded expectations," he said.

Independent observers confirmed the turnout appeared to be higher than in previous elections, such as those that brought Ahmadinejad to power in June last year.

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At least one government figure tried to make political capital out of the heavy voting. Top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani said the turnout would force the West to reconsider its line against Iran's enrichment of uranium, a process that can produce material for nuclear bombs.

"The high and serious voting will make the West suspend its bullying and adventurous approach to the nuclear case," state TV quoted Larijani as saying.

Counting began as soon as polls closed at 10 p.m. local time (1830 GMT). First results were due to appear Sunday, with final results expected Monday or later.

"The elections are a chance to demonstrate the nobility of the Iranian people," Ahmadinejad said. State TV showed the president waiting in line with other people to cast his ballot at a mosque in a middle-class district of Tehran.

People eagerly discussed the polls in the streets of Tehran, with some pledging to support the president.

Farideh Borna, a student, said she voted for a "pro-Ahmadinejad list" of local councilors because "I wanted to help him to fulfill his promises."

But Ahmadinejad was expected to lose the support of those fellow conservatives who feel he has spent too much time confronting the West rather than reviving the economy and changing things to benefit the people.

"I voted for those who pay attention to solving traffic problems and creating more greenery in the city more than other things," said Hossein Entezari, a medical lab technician.

He said he voted for Ahmadinejad last year, but this time he picked candidates who had campaigned on local issues.

Reformists are hoping that the local elections will show that support for their policies still exists. Iranian liberals held the presidency and dominated parliament and local councils in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but have been largely crushed by hard-liners in recent years.

"I voted for the reformist group, and I hope its message is clear," said Fatemeh Kermani, a 27-year-old teacher.

Some voters said they ignored national politics and voted for competence.

"I voted for those who have executive track records such as ex-ministers," said Haleh Ragheb, a student who voted in Imam Hassan Mosque, west Tehran, where a former Cabinet minister and two former vice presidents were on the reformist list.

"I did not care about tendencies," said Mahin Rastin, another student. "I voted for those people who are efficient from any faction."

All the 233,000 candidates for town and city councils, including some 5,000 women, were vetted by parliamentary committees that are dominated by hard-liners. The committees disqualified about 10,000 nominees, reports said.

The local councils approve community budgets and planning projects. In smaller cities and towns, the councils also elect the mayor.

In Tehran and other large cities, the councils propose mayoral nominees, and the Interior Ministry chooses.

Friday's vote was only the third time that Iranians had voted for local councils, a reform introduced in 1999 by former reformist President Mohammad Khatami.

Voters also cast ballots Friday for the Assembly of Experts, a body of 86 senior clerics that monitors Iran's supreme leader and chooses his successor.

Turnout was expected to be lower in the assembly election because there was little difference among the candidates, who were selected by a watchdog controlled by hard-liners.

Among those running for the assembly's seats were former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, former Iranian top nuclear negotiator Hasan Rowhani, and two top hard-line clerics Ahmad Jannati and Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, both prominent supporters of Ahmadinejad.