Voting Extended as Iranians Queue in Crucial Elections

Long lines formed and voting was extended Friday as Iranians cast ballots in an election test for moderate President Hassan Rouhani, who hopes to curb conservative dominance in parliament and deliver domestic reforms.

With the polls coming just one month after sanctions were lifted under a nuclear deal between Rouhani’s government and world powers, the outcome will be seen as a de-facto referendum on his administration.

The Islamic republic’s ultimate authority, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was among the first to vote and he urged the country’s 55 million-strong electorate to follow suit, as “it’s both a duty and a right”.

As well as picking 290 members of parliament, voters were also selecting the Assembly of Experts, a powerful committee of 88 clerics that monitors Khamenei’s work and may choose his successor.

There were big queues at polling stations in Tehran and state television showed similar scenes in other cities, with officials speaking of a high turnout, which is likely to benefit reformers.

Polls opened at 8:00 am (0430 GMT) and with many still waiting in line when they were supposed to close at 6:00 pm, the interior ministry gave voters an extra three hours.

The right to vote remains contentious in Iran because although more time was given in a 2009 presidential election, whose outcome was disputed, many voters said polling station doors were closed while they were still queuing outside.

After voting in Tehran, the country’s 67-year-old president pledged to protect the integrity of the elections as “a mark of trust.”

On Friday, some voters said they would wait as long as it takes.

“It’s worth it,” said Zahra Jamshidi, a 23-year-old student in east Tehran, who had been standing in line for 40 minutes.

Turnout in parliamentary elections four years ago was 64 percent nationwide and 48 percent in Tehran.

Higher participation would help Rouhani and his reformist allies, after many moderate voters stayed away in 2012 in protest at the re-election three years earlier of hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Known as the “diplomat sheikh” on account of his clerical credentials and willingness to negotiate, Rouhani was the driving force behind the nuclear deal, which he delivered despite political pressure at home.

– ‘List of Hope’ –

The agreement with powers led by the United States, the Islamic republic’s bete noire, raised hopes of recovery in Iran but although the economy exited a deep recession in 2014-2015, growth has stagnated in the past year.

A pro-government coalition of moderate and reformist candidates called “The List of Hope” is representing the president’s ambitions in the polls.

Lawmakers are elected for four years but the assembly has eight-year terms. Should Khamenei, who is 76, die during that time its members would pick his replacement.

Khamenei smiled warmly as he presented his identity documents to electoral officials before receiving his ballot paper which he posted in a sealed box.

“Everyone must vote, those who love Iran, those who like the Islamic republic, those who love the grandeur and glory of Iran,” said Khamenei, who backed Rouhani’s nuclear talks but has continued to rail against U.S. influence.

If voters support the pro-Rouhani list, the president could swing the balance of power among MPs and potentially pass economic, social and political legislation which have so far been blocked.

– Results will take days –

Many young Iranians — 60 percent of Iran’s 79 million population are aged under 30 — posted selfies on social media as they waited to vote.

“We need to open the doors of our country to the world,” said Atefeh Jaberi, a 45-year-old writer, outside Hosseiniye Ershad, a religious institute in north Tehran, who was backing Rouhani’s allies.

“We need fundamental reforms, we need to support the government.”

The run-up to polling day was largely overshadowed by controversies over who was allowed to run. Thousands of candidates were excluded.

Reformists said they were worst hit, with the barring of their most prominent faces leaving them with untested hopefuls.

A total of 4,844 candidates, about 10 percent of whom are women, stood in the parliamentary election. Only 159 clerics — a fifth of the applicants — were vying for the Assembly of Experts.

The pro-Rouhani list is headed by Mohammad Reza Aref, a former vice president in the 1997-2005 two-term government of reformist president Mohammad Khatami.

“If we win, the path becomes much smoother,” Aref told AFP, saying a similar result as Rouhani’s victory of 2013 — in which he won in a first round with 51 percent of the vote — could usher in prosperity.

“Hopefully once we win a majority our first step will be an economic boom,” he said.

The main conservative faction in the parliamentary polls is headed by Gholam-Ali Hadad Adel, a former parliament speaker who said he was “optimistic” about the polls.

Results from outside Tehran were expected within 24 hours but the vote tally in the capital, which has a population of 12 million and was electing 30 lawmakers, will take three days.