Rouhani's allies make huge gains in Iran elections

Arthur MacMillan

Tehran (AFP) - Iran's moderate President Hassan Rouhani won strong public backing and his reformist allies made stunning gains in parliamentary elections, partial results showed Sunday, reducing the potential for opponents to block domestic reform plans.

The reformists scored a unanimous victory in Tehran, taking all 30 seats at the expense of conservatives, including several hardline critics of the landmark nuclear deal between Rouhani's government and world powers.

The declaration for the capital came with more than 90 percent of votes counted, but the outcome from Friday's polling was mixed elsewhere.

Conservatives retained a strong grip in other cities and provinces, meaning that no one political faction was likely to secure majority control of parliament.

An AFP tally of results from 206 of the remaining 260 seats had the main conservative list winning 61, the List of Hope alliance between pro-Rouhani reformists and moderates 43, and independents 51.

Among the independents, 25 have ties to conservatives, 16 are close to reformists and 10 have no known affiliation. A further 51 seats had no clear winner and will require a second round of voting in April or May.

Although Rouhani secured the nuclear agreement last July, ending a 13-year standoff with the West, and sanctions were lifted last month he has so far been unable to deliver even limited social, cultural or political change at home.

Support from reformists in the next parliament should make that easier, but the resurgent group is also likely to pressure the president for change and concrete progress on long-avoided difficult issues such as demands to free political prisoners.

In comments posted on Twitter beside a picture of smiling voters, young and old, Rouhani hailed the results of the first polls since the nuclear deal as a vote of confidence in the government.

- 'A new atmosphere' -

"With your skilful voting you've created a new atmosphere. In respect, I stand up before you, great nation, who are the pride of the history of the land of Iran," he wrote on Twitter.

The wins for reformists and losses for hardliners represent "a reaction against radicals" from the electorate, Amir Mohebbian, an analyst with close links to the government and conservatives, told AFP.

"But mistakes by the conservatives who supported radicals during the campaign were also to blame," he said.

The Tehran landslide was a stunning comeback for reformists, long sidelined after the disputed re-election in 2009 of hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad which was followed by bloody street protests in which dozens were killed.

Reformists said that ballot was rigged and their two defeated candidates, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, have been under house arrest since 2011. Many of their supporters were locked up.

The head of the pro-Rouhani coalition, Mohammad Reza Aref, a former vice president, was in first place in Tehran, with 1,403,608 votes.

Ali Motahari, an outspoken conservative MP who has spoken out against the house arrest of Mousavi and Karroubi, switched sides and joined the slate headed by Aref for this election. He was in second spot with 1,258,640 votes.

There was also good news for Rouhani and his key ally Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in the second election Iranians voted in on Friday, for the powerful Assembly of Experts, 88 clerics who monitor the work of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Two of three ayatollahs that the pro-Rouhani list had urged voters to reject -- Ahmad Jannati, Mohammad Yazdi and Mohammad Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi -- were set to lose their seats, according to initial results.

- Top clerics may lose out -

Only Jannati, who chairs the conservative-dominated Guardian Council which must confirm the results of both elections, was safe, though he was well down the field in 15th place, just one spot within the 16 seats reserved for Tehran.

Yazdi, the current chair of the assembly, was in 17th position and Mesbah-Yazdi, a figure famously hostile to reformists, 19th.

Elected to an eight-year term, assembly members would pick Khamenei's successor should the 76-year-old die on their watch.

Rouhani and Rafsanjani, a former two-term president, held third and first places.

Rafsanjani has strongly supported Rouhani's diplomatic engagement on the nuclear talks, which included direct negotiations with the United States, the Islamic republic's bete noire since the 1979 revolution in Tehran.

Turnout in the election was solid at around 60 percent, slightly less than the 64 percent of 2012.

Khamenei acknowledged the participation late Sunday. "The future parliament has heavy duties," he said.

"The country's progress is the primary goal."

Final results are expected Monday or Tuesday, but even after all votes are counted by interior ministry officials, the Guardian Council's verification is not expected for several days.