Tehran: Millions of Iranians voted to elect a new parliament on Friday, despite a boycott by pro-democracy opposition groups.
Iran's conservative leaders had urged a strong turnout to help deter foreign threats at a time when the country faces unprecedented international pressure over its nuclear programme and the possibility of an Israeli strike.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's supreme leader who has the last say in all state affairs, cast his ballot for the 290-seat legislative body early in the morning. "The higher the turnout, the better it is for the country's dignity, security and future," he told reporters after voting.
The election is the first since the disputed presidential poll in 2009, which led to widespread protests against the Islamic rulers at the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, allegedly through vote rigging. A high turnout in the parliamentary election would reinforce the regime's suppression of the Green Movement.
Polling stations in religious and poor neighbourhoods of Tehran were busy on Friday but they were largely deserted in central, western and northern areas where the educated middle class, who largely form the opposition Green Movement, live.
Observers in other big cities, such as Isfahan and Mashhad, who were contacted by the Financial Times, confirmed the turnout was relatively high in poor and conservative neighbourhoods and low among the reform-minded people. The participation rate in smaller towns in the same provinces was said to be higher.
Naser, a 52-year-old mechanic, voted for fundamentalists in Imam Hossein mosque, in a conservative Tehran neighbourhood, after joining a line of more than 50 voters.
"I wanted to show the US and Israel that Iranians support their regime and do not support any military confrontation even though we are critical of our rulers for the economic problems and fuelling tensions with the world," he said.
Voters in Tehran's conservative neighbourhoods appeared to be largely divided between two electoral lists, both of which support Ayatollah Khamenei, who is in a tense power struggle with Mr Ahmadi-Nejad.
The United Fundamentalist Front, an umbrella group supporting Ayatollah Khamenei, is considered more moderate among the hardliners and is harshly critical of the president, while the Stability of Islamic Revolution Front represents the most radical side of Iran's hardliners and is allied to the supreme leader but less hostile to Mr Ahmadi-Nejad than the United Front.
There is suspicion that Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards favour the radical policy of the Stability Front and the candidates of the United Front have complained about interference by its Basij militiamen.
In past elections the Revolutionary Guards mobilised the Basij to lobby the pious and the poor to vote for its preferred candidates.
"It is not clear yet whether the Guards support the Stability Front or the United Front or are divided between the two, as both groups back the supreme leader," said Mohammad-Sadegh Javadi-Hesar, a reform-minded politician in the north-eastern city of Mashhad.
Mr Ahmadi-Nejad, many of whose supporters are barred by supervisory bodies from running in the election, is believed to have focused on smaller constituencies in other towns where he enjoys more support thanks to his populist policies and handing out cash to the poor.
Candidates affiliated to the president who have escaped the vetting procedures are believed to be running as independent candidates without revealing their connections to Mr Ahmadi-Nejad.
It will take Iran's government a maximum of three days to announce the final election results.
International human rights organisations have already rejected Iran's parliamentary poll as unfair.
"Iranian authorities have stacked the deck by disqualifying candidates and arbitrarily jailing key members of the reform movement," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, on Thursday.
Reporters Without Borders, which has dubbed Iran the world's third biggest prison for the media, also said the censorship imposed on the media and the continuation of a crackdown on journalists have denied Iran's voters the information they need in choosing their candidates and hence makes the poll meaningless.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012
Posted on March 2, 2012 10:15 am