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Ahmadinejad opponents lead in local elections

Opponents of hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took an early lead in key races in Iran’s local elections, according to partial results announced Monday, with moderate conservatives winning control of councils across Iran.
/ Source: The Associated Press

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took an embarrassing blow in early election results Monday, as his opponents scooped up seats in local councils. The vote was seen as a sign of public discontent with his hard-line stance, which has fueled fights with the West and brought Iran closer to U.N. sanctions.

The balloting represented a partial comeback for reformists, who favor closer ties with the West and further loosening of social and political restrictions under the Islamic government.

But the bigger victory was for “moderate conservatives,” supporters of Iran’s cleric-led power structure who are angry at Ahmadinejad, saying he has needlessly provoked the West with harsh rhetoric and has failed to fix the country’s faltering economy.

The election, held Friday, does not directly affect Ahmadinejad’s administration and is not expected to bring immediate policy changes. It selected local councils that handle community matters in cities and towns across Iran.

President may face pressure to change
But it represented the first time the public has weighed in on Ahmadinejad’s stormy presidency since he took office in June 2005. The results, if the trend holds, could pressure Ahmadinejad to change at least his tone and focus more on high unemployment and other economic problems.

Ahmadinejad has escalated Iran’s nuclear dispute with the United States, pushing ahead with uranium enrichment despite U.N. demands to suspend the process. As a result, Europe has come to support Washington’s calls for sanctions to stop a program they fear aims to develop nuclear weapons, a claim Iran denies.

The president also has angered Europe and the U.S. by proclaiming Israel will one day be “wiped out” and hosting a conference casting doubt on the Nazi Holocaust.

“Ahmadinejad’s list has suffered a decisive defeat nationwide,” said the Islamic Iran Participation Front, the largest reformist party. “It is a big no to the government’s authoritarian and inefficient methods.”

In some cities such as Shiraz and Bandar Abbas, not one pro-Ahmadinejad candidate won a council seat, according to partial results announced by the Interior Ministry.

Reformists post strong showing
In Tehran, candidates supporting Mayor Mohammed Bagher Qalibaf, a moderate conservative, were on track to win seven of 15 council seats. Reformists were set to win four, while Ahmadinejad’s allies had three, partial results showed. The last seat was likely to go to an independent.

Similar anti-Ahmadinejad sentiment was visible in a parallel election for members of the Assembly of Experts, a body of 86 senior clerics that monitors Iran’s supreme leader and chooses his successor. Several pro-reform clerics were barred from running, but conservative opponents of the president appeared to outperform his supporters.

Former President Hashemi Rafsanjani polled the most votes of any Tehran candidate to win re-election to the assembly. Also re-elected was Hasan Rowhani, Iran’s former top nuclear negotiator, whom Ahmadinejad has accused of making too many concessions to the Europeans.

By contrast, Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi — regarded as the president’s hard-line spiritual mentor — won an assembly seat. An Yazdi ally was defeated by a more moderate conservative cleric in the city of Qom.

Higher local turnout
Turnout in the local council vote was more than 60 percent — higher than the 50 percent in the last one, held in 2002.

The “moderate conservative” camp emerged as a strong political force, positioned between pro-Ahmadinejad hard-liners and the reformists. In their campaign, they promised to improve living standards, modernize the economy and promote “competency” in administration.

Qalibaf and his supporters do not back moving closer to the United States and they oppose giving up uranium enrichment, a position shared by almost all camps in Iran, where the nuclear program is a source of national pride.

But they oppose extreme stances that fuel tensions with the outside world and accuse Ahmadinejad of provoking the West. The moderates also tolerate less restrictive social rules on mixing of sexes and women’s dress, while many hard-liners want tougher restrictions.

One moderate headed to victory, former Tehran police chief Morteza Talai, was popular among reformers because his forces did not crack down on the few anti-government protests that have occurred at universities during Ahmadinejad’s presidency.

Analyst sees shift to moderation
Political analyst Mostafa Mirzaeian said Iran’s political lineup was moving toward “a coalition between reformers and moderate conservatives, at the expense of hard-line extremists who support Ahmadinejad.”

The showing raised hopes for reformers, especially since many of their candidates were barred from running by parliament committees. Among the apparent victors in Tehran was Massoumeh Iftikhar, who served as Iran’s first female vice president during the term of pro-reform President Mohammad Khatami..

Khatami was elected in 1997 and reformers gained control of parliament soon after. In recent years, hard-liners regained the legislature by using cleric-run bodies to bar top reformists from running.