TEHRAN — Early election results in Iran show reformists who favor expanding democratic freedoms and improving relations with the West are expanding their presence in parliament and a clerical body responsible for selecting the country’s next supreme leader.
Reports in the semi-official Fars and Mehr news agencies showed hard-liners losing ground in the 290-seat legislature. None of Iran’s three main political camps — reformist, conservative and hard-line — was expected to capture a majority, but the reformist camp is on track for its best showing in more than a decade.
A victory for reformists would be a boost for moderate President Hassan Rouhani, who championed the newly implemented Iranian nuclear deal with world powers in the face of hard-line opposition.
Initial results also showed moderates gaining ground in the 88-member Assembly of Experts, which will select the successor to 76-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s top decision-maker since 1989.
State TV reported that Rouhani and former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a relative moderate, are on track to keep their seats on the 88-seat assembly, which is elected every eight years.
The two were leading in the Tehran constituency, which will send 16 candidates to the assembly and is seen as a political bellwether. Just three of the Tehran clerics who were on track to win are hard-liners, down from six who currently serve in the assembly. There were no immediate results from other constituencies, and vote counting was still underway.
The current assembly only has around 20 moderates.
Nearly 55 million of Iran’s 80 million people were eligible to vote. Participation figures were not immediately available, but Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli on Saturday said participation was likely to exceed 60 percent based on the partial counting of the votes.
Friday’s election was the first since last summer’s nuclear agreement was finalized, lifting international economic sanctions in exchange for Iran curbing its nuclear program. US officials had hoped the agreement would strengthen moderates in Iran, perhaps paving the way for improved ties and cooperation on other issues, including the war against the Islamic State group.
Polls closed at midnight and officials immediately began counting the ballots. In the capital, officials counting the ballots in three different districts told The Associated Press that reformists were leading their hard-line rivals.
A substantial reformist bloc could herald a crucial shift in Iran’s internal politics. The hard-line camp is largely made up of loyalists of Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who during his two terms in office stoked tensions with the US and cracked down on dissent. Ahmadinejad also alienated large sectors of the conservative camp, leading some moderate conservatives to ally with reformists in this election in a bid to reduce the power of the hard-liners.
Reformists rose to power with the 1997 election of president Mohammad Khatami, followed by 2000 parliamentary elections that brought a reformist majority for the first time. The movement pressed for an easing of Islamic social restrictions, wider freedom of expression and better ties to the international community.
But that hold was broken in the next election in 2004, when reformist candidates were largely barred from running. Ahmadinejad’s election victory in 2005 sealed the movement’s downfall. Reformists were virtually shut out of politics until Rouhani was elected in 2013.
The presidential election in 2009 was followed by mass protests over alleged voting fraud, but other past elections in Iran have been held without any major disputes. However, the Guardian Council has the right to vet candidates, and this year it disqualified all but 30 of the 3,000 reformist candidates who had hoped to run.
Out of the first 27 constituencies counted Saturday — less than 10 percent of the total — eight went to conservatives, four to reformists and eight to independents, with others set to go to a second round because no candidate won 25 percent of the vote.
The high number of independent winners could suggest a partial shift away from Iran’s sharply factional politics towards the middle ground.
If that trend continues when more seats are declared it may be because voters reacted to the high number of reformist candidates who were not allowed to compete in the elections, a reform-minded analyst said.
“They may have been more inclined to vote for people they know rather than for candidates strictly identified as conservatives or something else on a list,” Saeed Laylaz told AFP.
Based on unconfirmed reports, he predicted a strong showing for the List of Hope, comprising moderates and reformists.
“What is for sure is that there will be less conservatives from the hard right in the next parliament. It won’t be easy for them,” Laylaz said.
While lawmakers serve for four years members of the assembly are given twice as long. If Khamenei were to die during the next assembly’s term they would appoint his successor.
Final results of both elections must be confirmed by the conservative-dominated Guardian Council — charged with monitoring the vote — and are not expected for several days.
Khamenei was among the first to vote on Friday and he urged the entire electorate to follow suit, saying casting a ballot is “both a duty and a right.”
Participation in parliamentary elections four years ago was 64 percent nationwide and 48 percent in Tehran.
If turnout proves no higher than in 2012 but the parliamentary election produces a radically different result it could be because different parts of the electorate voted this time around.
Many moderate voters stayed away in 2012 in protest at the re-election three years earlier of hardline president Ahmadinejad. If they voted on Friday it would probably be to Rouhani’s advantage.
Known as the “diplomat sheikh” because of his clerical credentials and willingness to negotiate, the president was the driving force behind the nuclear deal, which he delivered despite political pressure at home.
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.
The run-up to polling day was largely overshadowed by controversies over who was allowed to stand. 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 before vetting — were vying for the Assembly of Experts.