TEHRAN – Iran began counting votes on Saturday after elections that could see reformists accelerate Tehran’s opening to the world or long-dominant hardliners reaffirm the Islamic Republic’s traditional anti-Western stance.
The twinned elections for parliament and a leadership body called the Assembly of Experts are seen by some analysts as a potential generational turning point for Iran, where nearly 60 percent of the 80 million population is under 30.
The elections are the first since Tehran last year agreed with major powers to curb its nuclear program, leading to the removal of most of the stringent international sanctions that have paralyzed the economy over the past decade.
Newspapers hailed what they saw as a huge turnout, including many young voters. Polling was extended five times for a total of almost six extra hours because so many people wanted to vote.
Iran’s Financial Tribune newspaper said 3 million first-time voters were among the 55 million people age 18 and over who are eligible to cast ballots in the country of 80 million.
A clear outcome may take days to emerge, although conservatives usually perform well in rural areas and young town-dwellers are seen as preferring more moderate candidates allied to President Hassan Rouhani.
Morale appeared high in the reformist camp.
Saeed Leylaz, a political analyst and economist who served as an adviser to former President Mohammad Khatami, said initial indications were beyond reformist expectations. “It seems the number of candidates who belong to the reformist and independent groups will be the majority in parliament and I am hopeful that the new parliament will be perfect for us,” he told Reuters. “In the Assembly of Experts, our initial expectation was 15 to 20 percent, but it seems it will be beyond that.”
Interior Ministry spokesman Hosseinali Amiri said more than 33 million eligible voters had cast ballots — in what would be a 60 percent turnout — but it was not a final tally.
Some analysts estimate a likely turnout of about 38 million, and Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli said in an interview with state TV before the election that opinion polls and estimates had indicated the turnout would be 70 percent.
Supporters of Rouhani, who championed the nuclear deal, are pitted against hardliners close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. They are deeply suspicious of detente with Western countries, seen as adversaries implacably opposed to the 1979 revolution that toppled the Shah.
Authorities had promised that all Iranians would be able to vote and on Friday opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi and his wife voted for the first time since being put under house arrest in 2011.
No official results were released overnight, state television said in its morning news bulletin. The Interior Ministry published a statement saying no result would be valid before it was officially announced by the ministry.
Among voters in Khorasan square, a working-class neighborhood in Tehran, on Friday, Mahnaz Mehri, a 52-year-old mother of four, said she was voting for reformists because they had a better vision for the economy and foreign policy.
In Meydan Beheshti square, a mainly conservative neighborhood, Reza Ganjialilu, a 28-year-old employee at an electronics shop said he did not favor the reformists. “I have a duty to my country. This group of people (conservatives) are the best. Our main concern is preserving our religion, ideology, not just the economy,” he said.
Iran, which has the world’s second-largest gas reserves, a diversified manufacturing base and an educated workforce, is seen by global investors as a huge emerging-market opportunity in everything from cars to airplanes and railways to retail.
For ordinary Iranians, the prospect of this kind of investment holds out the promise of a return to economic growth, better living standards and more jobs in the long run.
An opening to the world of this scale — and Rouhani’s popularity — have alarmed hard-line allies of Khamenei, who fear losing control of the pace of change, as well as erosion of the lucrative economic interests they built up under sanctions.
Both camps appeared successful in getting supporters out to vote on Friday. Although extensions of voting are common in Iranian elections, many were surprised to see voting booths still packed in midevening.
Influential former President Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, allied to Rouhani, called on election authorities to protect people’s votes. “You should show our people that their votes will be preserved and are in safe hands,” he said. Asked what would happen if reformists did not win, he told Reuters, “It will be a major loss for the Iranian nation.”
At stake is control of the 290-seat parliament and the 88-member Assembly of Experts, the body that has the power to appoint and dismiss the supreme leader. Like the parliament, the assembly is in the hands of hard-liners.
During its next eight-year term, it could name the successor to Khamenei, who is 76 and has been in power since 1989.