TEHRAN, Iran – Reformist leaders pushed for Iranians to vote in parliamentary elections Friday, hoping to prevent a sweep by hard-liners allied with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after the country's clerical leadership threw many liberal candidates out of the race.
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.
In the end, Hesam Javadi, a 30-year-old computer technician, voted.
"We can't stop the rain," he said after casting his ballot for reformists at a north Tehran polling station. "But we can at least put an umbrella over our heads in self-defense."
According to the official IRNA and semi-official Fars news agencies, initial results showed hard-liners leading the elections but reformists were polling strongly in some provincial cities.
Reformists are hoping a strong turnout can win them a large enough minority bloc in parliament to at least have an impact after four years with only a small presence.
But even that may be difficult. Some of the movement's leaders estimated it has candidates running in only around 90 of the races for parliament's 290 seats after its ranks were dramatically cut by the clerical disqualifications.
Perhaps the more crucial test will be of 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.
If they do well, it could raise the chances Ahmadinejad will face a challenge from moderate conservatives in presidential elections next year. Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, often touted as a possible candidate for president, is said to back the list of Ahmadinejad's critics.
Conservative critics say Ahmadinejad has fumbled efforts to fix the economy of this oil-rich nation — hit by high inflation and 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. They say he too harshly rejects input from moderate conservatives.
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."
"We urge Iranian leaders to end interference in future elections, including the 2009 presidential election," McCormack added.
Some 4,500 candidates nationwide are running for parliament's 290 seats in Friday's vote. Some partial returns from the provinces could be known Saturday, but final results will take days.
Voting in Tehran appeared slow for much of the day, until the evening when it seemed to step up considerably. Authorities kept polls open an extra four hours to let in more voters.
In the late afternoon, with several hours of polling still ahead, state television said some 16 million of the estimated 44 million eligible voters across the country — about 36 percent — had voted so far.
Mohammad Sadri, a stationery store owner in Tehran's historic bazaar, said he voted for Ahmadinejad for president in 2005, "and now I've voted for his allies to help him to continue his plans effectively."
The 74-year-old said he and his wife were voting "to protect the blood of martyrs" who sacrificed themselves for Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.
Ahmadinejad's allies are largely running on a slate known as the United Front of Principlists, referring to their adherence to the revolution's principles. Their ranks include some of the top figures of the conservative movement, including the current parliament speaker Gholam Ali Haddad Adel and his deputy Mohammad Reza Bahonar, who is widely seen as the brain behind Ahmadinejad's rise to power.
After sunset, significant lines appeared for the first time at dozens of polling stations, particularly in the better-off districts of northern Tehran, seen as a stronghold for reformists.
"I was undecided up to the last minute because all the best candidates were disqualified. But I'm voting for reformers to keep out those who lead a dictatorship in the name of Islam," said Homa Foroughi, who voted late in the day.
Ahead of Friday's vote, the Guardian Council — an unelected body of clerics and jurists — barred around 1,700 candidates, mostly reformists, on the grounds they were insufficiently loyal to Islam and the revolution.
Former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a member of the clerical leadership seen as a top rival of Ahmadinejad, tried to convince 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 Rafsanjani, according to the state news agency. "This will lead to the absence of their favorite candidates in the council."
Khamenei and other top clerics and government officials have said a strong turnout will be a blow to the United States, Iran's enemy No. 1, showing that Iranians support their system.
But historically, when turnout has been higher, reformists have done better. In the last parliament vote in 2004, many reformists were barred from running and hard-liners swept the election. Turnout was 51 percent, low compared to 2000 when around 80 percent participated, sweeping reformists into parliament.
Many people Friday were more concerned with shopping, packing malls and shops on main street to prepare for the Iranian New Year, Nowruz, which takes place next week. Shoppers could be seen coming out of shops with plates of herbs and bowls of goldfish — symbols of the spring holiday.
"If I get to the polls, I'll vote for reformists. They don't bother women," said Sherine Faraji as she shopped. She wore a tight-fitting jacket and a colorful head scarf that showed much of her hair — a far looser dress code than conservatives support.