TEHRAN (AFP) — Iranian conservatives were poised on Saturday to win a two-thirds parliamentary majority but with reformists retaining a foothold despite losing hundreds of candidates to pre-election vetting.
The resilience of the reformist vote in the face of the mass veto comes as hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seeks re-election in 2009 to continue his controversial mandate amid discontent over double-digit inflation.
Friday's vote -- which arch foe Washington said was "cooked" -- was also marked by divisions in the conservative camp which led to two coalitions of "principalists," with one less enthusiastic about the populist president.
"More than 71 percent of the seats inside the parliament have been won by the conservatives," Interior Minister Mostafa Pour Mohammadi announced, based on partial results from an unspecified number of seats.
"This number could change by two-three percent as more results come in," he told reporters.
The main reformist coalition could only field 102 candidates for the 260 seats outside Tehran due to the pre-vote disqualifications but was still expecting to win 44 of these seats, its spokesman Abdollah Nasseri told AFP.
If confirmed this would mean that reformists have managed to keep a respectable minority in the 290-seat parliament, where they currently have around 40 MPs, despite losing hundreds of their best candidates in the vetting.
The authorities hailed a "glorious" turnout of over 65 percent in the poll, far higher than the lacklustre figure in the previous election in 2004 that saw reformists lose their majority in the chamber.
"The nation's vote broke the enemy's back," the hardline Kayhan daily crowed on its front page.
The authorities had called for a huge turnout to send a message of national unity to Iran's enemies amid continued tensions with the West over its nuclear drive.
"The Iranian nation is treading the same path and insists on this path," Pour Mohammadi said in a message of defiance to the West.
But the United States condemned the elections as "cooked" after the disqualification by the hardline Guardians Council of hundreds of reformist candidates deemed insufficiently loyal to the Islamic revolution.
The results are "cooked in the sense that the Iranian people were not able to vote for a full range of people," US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
Iran's former top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani, standing for conservatives in the holy city of Qom, was elected to parliament in a landslide victory with 76 percent of the vote, the Fars news agency said.
The first results were for towns and cities outside Tehran. But in the capital on Saturday, the conservatives were ahead after a count of nearly a third of ballot boxes, according to the interior ministry, cited by ISNA news agency.
Results from the capital were due by Monday, Pour Mohammadi said.
The Tehran race will be particularly closely watched as the reformists were able to compete for all 30 seats available in the capital, leaving them in a fairly even competition with the conservatives.
Also closely monitored is the performance of the Broad Principalist Coalition, a breakaway group inspired by heavyweight conservatives annoyed by Ahmadinejad's confrontational foreign policy and expansionary economic measures.
MPs from this list, which nonetheless shares many names with the Unified Front, are likely to be more critical of Ahmadinejad in parliament.
Iran is enduring inflation of almost 18 percent, a problem economists blame on the government injecting massive amounts of cash into the economy to fund infrastructure projects promised on the president's provincial tours.
But the president is still believed to enjoy great support amongst the urban poor, especially outside the capital.
Compared with other chambers in the region, the Iranian parliament wields a respectable amount of power but its capacities are limited by the unelected Guardians Council, which must approve all legislation.
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