Tehran votes with a smile
As Iran votes, the moderates are leading the hardliners and hoping to usher in an era of prosperity.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani won a resounding vote of support and his moderate allies made a strong showing in high stakes elections that could speed Iran's post-sanctions opening to the world, according to early partial results on Saturday.
Tens of millions thronged polling stations on Friday for a twin vote to the 290-seat parliament and the 88-member Assembly of Experts, which selects the country's highest authority, the supreme leader.
An initial tally of 1.5 million votes counted in Tehran - fewer than one-fifth of the capital's elibigle voters - showed Rouhani and his pragmatic ally, ex-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, leading the race for the Assembly of Experts, according to Interior Ministry figures.
Reformists and moderates also seemed set to make big gains against Islamic hardliners in parliament. The twin poll was seen by analysts as a potential turning point for Iran, where nearly 60 percent of the 80 million population is under 30.
The elections were the first since a landmark nuclear deal last year that led to the removal of most of the sanctions that have damaged the economy over the past decade.
Supporters of Rouhani, who championed the nuclear deal, were pitted against hardliners close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni, who are deeply wary of detente with Western countries. The conservative Guardian Council had restricted both races by disqualifying most reformist and many moderate candidates.
However, of the top contenders for Tehran's 16 Assembly of Experts seats, the partial count showed 13 were members of a list led by Rouhani and Rafsanjani, though some were consensus candidates also backed by hardliners.
The three most prominent hardliners received lesser scores: Ahmad Jannati was 10th, the assembly's current chairman Mohammad Yazdi came 12th, and arch-conservative Mohammad-Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi was teetering on the edge in 16th place.
Preliminary results of the parliamentary poll carried by the semi-official Fars and Mehr News agencies indicated reformists and independents linked to them were leading so far against hardliners in several cities.
Even if reformists do not emerge with a majority in the legislature, dominated since 2004 by conservatives, analysts say they will secure a bigger presence than before.
A tally, based on early official results suggested the pro-Rouhani camp and allied independents were leading in the parliamentary vote. Some moderate conservatives, including current speaker Ali Larijani, support Rouhani.
Of the first 61 seats declared, 18 went to hardliners, 17 to reformists, 12 to independents and 14 will be decided in run-offs in late April because no candidate won the required 25 percent of votes cast. Five of the initial winners were women.
Conservatives usually perform well in the countryside while young town-dwellers tend to prefer moderate candidates. Reformists seeking more social and economic freedoms and diplomatic engagement had voiced high hopes of expanding their sway in parliament and easing conservative clerics' grip on the experts' assembly.
An adviser to former President Khatami said initial indications were beyond reformist expectations. "It seems the number of candidates who belong to the reformist and independent groups will be the majority in parliament and I am hopeful that the new parliament will be perfect for us," he said.
Rafsanjani, 81, a prominent leader ever since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, called for national unity now the divisive campaign was over.
"The competition is over and the phase of unity and cooperation has arrived," he said. "The time after elections is the time for hard work to build the country."
Newspapers hailed what they saw as a huge turnout, including many young voters. Polling was extended five times for a total of almost six extra hours because so many people wanted to vote.
Three million first-time voters were among the nearly 55 million people aged 18 and over who are eligible to cast ballots.
More than 33 million votes had been cast but that tally was not final. It would probably take three days to count all the votes. Mehr news agency published a list of both official and unofficial parliamentary winners so far, breaking down their affiliation as 82 conservative, 49 reformist and 71 independent.
Iran, which has the world's second-largest gas reserves, a diversified manufacturing base and an educated workforce, is seen by global investors as a huge emerging market opportunity, in everything from cars to airplanes and railways to retail.
For ordinary Iranians, the prospect of this kind of investment holds out the promise of a return to economic growth, better living standards and more jobs in the long run.
An opening to the world of this scale - and Rouhani's popularity - have alarmed hardline allies of Khamenei, who fear losing control of the pace of change, as well as erosion of the lucrative economic interests they built up under sanctions.
Whatever the outcome, Iran's political system places considerable power in the hands of the conservative Islamic establishment including the 12-member Guardian Council, which vets all electoral candidates. It had already tried to shape Friday's vote by excluding thousands of candidates, including many moderates and almost all reformists.