Iran’s media reported a huge turnout on Friday in parliamentary elections described as a “blow” to the West, while voters said they were mostly preoccupied with their sanctions-hit economy — and non-voters spoke of a “sham” poll.
The elections to fill the 290 seats in parliament, known as the Majlis, were the first since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was returned to office in a disputed 2009 vote that prompted opposition cries of fraud.
While that re-election sparked widespread protests brutally put down by security forces, there was no disturbance this time, according to police.
Officials several times extended voting hours because of what media including the Fars news agency called a “massive turnout” — a common occurrence in past elections too.
Polling stations finally closed at 11:00 pm (1930 GMT), officials said.
Authorities were keen to present a high turnout to show they enjoyed broad public support and legitimacy, especially at a time when they are confronting the United States and its European allies over Tehran’s controversial nuclear programme.
Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said as he cast his ballot that vigorous voter participation bolstered “the future, prestige, security and immunity of the country.”
State media and many voters echoed his assertion that Iran’s voters had dealt “a blow to the face of the enemies” in the West.
The official Islamic Republic News Agency praised the “passionate participation” of voters.
Some others, though, questioned the turnout claims.
They underlined that the main opposition groups, whose leaders are under house arrest, had boycotted the polls and that the 3,400 candidates approved to run were overwhelmingly conservatives.
Several university students who had favoured reformists in the 2009 presidential election told AFP they had seen no point in voting in “sham” elections.
“The outcome is predetermined. It’s of no difference if I vote or not. I learned this from the previous election, when our votes were stolen,” said Reyhane, 25, sitting in a cafe with friends.
Mahmoud, 22, piped up: “I feel like the regime sees us, and our votes, as a plaything. I voted in the presidential election — that taught me that I should never vote again.”
He added that state media appealing for a big turnout was “just so they could say the regime has popular support, that it is legitimate.”
The US-based rights group Human Rights Watch called the elections “grossly unfair,” saying in a statement that “Iranian authorities have stacked the deck by disqualifying candidates and arbitrarily jailing key members of the reform movement.”
Voters were essentially being asked to choose between two conservative camps: those backing Ahmadinejad, and those despising him for perceived nationalist intentions challenging their Islamic vision.
The poll outcome will help set the political scene for 2013, when Ahmadinejad has to step down, having reached his term limit.
Khamenei last year put a lid on the president’s expanding ambitions by publicly overriding Ahmadinejad’s attempt to sack the intelligence minister.
Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president who has taken his distance from Khamenei, was reported by the ISNA news agency as saying Iran would have a “good” next parliament — “should the election result be what the people want and be how they cast their votes in the ballot boxes.”
Most voters AFP spoke to said the main issue on their minds was the difficulties they face in Iran’s economy, which is struggling with high inflation and unemployment, and Western sanctions imposed over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
Western nations accuse Iran of seeking to acquire nuclear weapons in the guise of a peaceful atomic programme, a charge denied by Tehran.
Samad, a 51-year-old pastry cook who did not give his last name, stood in line for 45 minutes in his uniform to fill out his ballot paper.
“I vote because it is my national duty,” he said. “But there are many problems in our country. We did not stage a revolution to have it become worse.”
Vahid Lavasani, a 34-year-old shopkeeper voting with his elderly mother, said: “I want the Majlis to resolve the economic issues and improve our relationship with the West. I also want them to rein in the president, so the country is united.”