By Arthur MACMILLAN
Tehran (AFP) Feb 26, 2016
Iranians vote Friday in elections billed by the moderate president as vital to curbing conservative dominance in parliament and speeding up domestic reforms after a nuclear deal with world powers.
A pro-government coalition called "The List of Hope" is representing President Hassan Rouhani's ambitions in the polls. Almost 55 million people are eligible to cast ballots that will ultimately elect 290 lawmakers.
They will also vote in a second election to select the Assembly of Experts, a powerful committee of 88 clerics that monitors the work of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
While MPs are elected for four years the assembly will be granted an eight-year term. Should Khamenei, who is 76, die during that time its members would pick his successor.
Voting starts at 6am (0430 GMT) and closes at 6pm although officials say polling stations could stay open if there are queues and more time is needed to cast ballots.
As Iran's ultimate authority, Khamenei's powers outrank those of Rouhani, but the president is looking for gains in parliament to allow him to build on the nuclear deal by bringing improvements at home.
The economy has featured strongly during the election campaign as Iran faces a stubborn challenge to overcome the damage that almost a decade of sanctions caused.
The elections will be a crucial indicator of the future direction Iranians want for their country.
Rouhani has played up the potential for foreign investment which he says will bring jobs, particularly for Iran's youth whose unemployment rate of 25 percent is two-and-a-half times the national average.
However, conservatives say strong economic growth will only be possible if an emphasis is placed on domestic production under a "resistance economy" model more in tune with the ideals of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.
- Call for high turnout -
Although he returned the economy to growth after inheriting a recession, the president remains vulnerable as the benefit of sanctions relief and a return of international business will take time.
If voters support the pro-Rouhani list, a coalition of moderate and reformist candidates, the president could swing the balance of power in parliament, creating an opening for social and political reforms on which he has so far been blocked by lawmakers.
But a one-week official campaign for the parliamentary election has been largely overshadowed by controversies over who was allowed to run for office.
The exclusion of thousands of candidates -- reformists said they were worst hit, with the barring of their most prominent faces leaving them with untested hopefuls -- has raised concerns over turnout.
A total of 4,844 candidates, about 10 percent of whom are women, are standing in the parliamentary election. Only 159 clerics -- a fifth of the applicants -- are seeking a place on the Assembly of Experts.
On Wednesday, Rouhani sent a text message urging people to vote, saying participation was needed "to build the future of the country with plenty of hope," echoing the campaign message of his allies.
The main conservative faction is headed by Gholam-Ali Hadad Adel, a former parliament speaker, whose daughter is married to one of supreme leader Khamenei's sons.
Results from outside Tehran are expected within 24 hours but the vote tally in the capital, which has a population of 12 million and is electing 30 lawmakers, will take three days.
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