Iran poll delivers challenger to president

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President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran has suffered a setback with the election to parliament of the former nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, a personal enemy who challenged him in 2005's presidential election.

Mr Larijani won a landslide victory in the holy city of Qom in last Friday's election, winning more than 70 per cent of the vote. He is now a favourite to become the parliament's speaker as his alliance of "pragmatic conservatives" has cut into the parliamentary majority of Mr Ahmadinejad's supporters. It has also placed Mr Larijani in pole position for another run against Mr Ahmadinejad in the presidential election next year.

"It sends a subliminal message that he has the backing of the religious mullahs," said one Western diplomat in Tehran.

Mr Larijani resigned last year as chief nuclear negotiator after falling out with the President over his confrontational tactics with the West. But the President's erstwhile allies, including the Mayor of Tehran, Mohamed Baqer Qalibaf who also nurses presidential ambitions, were also critical of the President's economic policies which have caused high inflation and unemployment. Many Iranians said that the economy was their main concern in the parliamentary vote, whose outcome will not affect the nuclear stand-off between Iran and the West.

Neither Mr Larijani nor Mr Qalibaf, a former police chief who ordered a vicious crackdown against university students in 1999, are particularly moderate, but they are compared with the radical President.

Although the conservatives won an easy overall victory in the 290-seat parliament, after 1,700 reformist candidates were disbarred by religious authorities, the results reflected the power struggle in the conservative camp.

Mr Larijani's faction won at least 43 seats, compared with 70 for those allied to Mr Ahmadinejad. The reformists, who had the backing of the former president Mohammad Khatami, had 40 seats in the last parliament and have won 31 this time, although the results from Tehran have not yet been counted.

They hope their numbers could be boosted by some of the 42 candidates who obtained seats as independents, and plan to ally themselves with the "pragmatic" conservatives against Mr Ahmadinejad on specific issues.

The interior ministry said that the turnout was 60 per cent, 9 per cent higher than in the 2004 parliamentary election, though that figure is unlikely to hold true for Tehran, where the lines outside pistachio stores were longer than at the polling stations on Friday. Many young people said they would not vote because of the disbarring of so many reformist candidates.

Mr Ahmadinejad said the turnout "placed a sign of disgrace on the foreheads of our enemies", reflecting the Islamic leadership's call for a high turnout which it said would demonstrate to the West Iranian support for the government. However, the reformists also called for Iranians not to boycott the parliamentary vote, saying they would interpret a high turnout as a sign of encouragement.

Final results may be available today but the EU has already expressed "deep regret and disappointment" over the mass disbarring of candidates, saying that the election was "neither free nor fair". Washington said the leadership had "cooked" the election by disqualifying the reformists.