Early results show Iranian president's conservative opponents leading vote

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The Independent Online

Early returns showed hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's conservative opponents leading in elections for local councils and a powerful clerical body, widely considered a test of popular approval for the hardline leader.

Ahmadinejad's anti-Israel rhetoric and staunch stand on Iran's nuclear program are believed to have divided the conservatives who voted him into power. Some conservatives feel Ahmadinejad has spent too much time confronting the West and failed to deal with Iran's struggling economy.

Tehran newspapers and semiofficial news agencies reported unofficial results Saturday showing that no single party would be able to claim outright victory in Friday's elections, partly because of divisions within the conservative faction.

Iran's political scene is broadly split between conservative and pro-reform camps.

Officials have said preliminary results are expected Sunday, with final results coming Monday or later.

The semiofficial Mehr news agency said unofficial results showed candidates who support Ahmadinejad trailing in Tehran's municipal elections behind supporters of Mayor Mohammed Bagher Qalibaf, a moderate conservative.

Former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, considered an Ahmadinejad opponent, was leading in the Assembly of Experts election in Tehran, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported. The assembly is a body of 86 senior clerics that monitors Iran's supreme leader and chooses his successor.

The race for the assembly is dominated by two main rivals: Rafsanjani and Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, widely seen as Ahmadinejad's spiritual mentor.

Reformists are hoping the local elections would show there is still public support for their policies. They held the presidency and dominated parliament and local councils in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but hard-liners have dominated in recent years.

Government officials touted Friday's high voter turnout as a "message" to the West.

"Through their impressive turnout under the current sensitive circumstances, the Iranian people sent a clear message to enemies of Iran's development," IRNA quoted Interior Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi as saying.

The minister was apparently referring to Western critics of Iran's nuclear program. Iran says its program is intended only for generating fuel, but the U.S. and its European allies believe it aims to produce nuclear weapons.

Iran started having council elections after a reform introduced in 1999 by President Mohammed Khatami.

More than 233,000 candidates ran for more than 113,000 council seats in cities, towns and villages across the vast nation on Friday. Local councils elect the mayor and approve community budgets and planning projects.

All municipal council candidates, including some 5,000 women, were vetted by parliamentary committees dominated by hard-liners. The committees disqualified about 10,000 nominees, reports said.