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Friday, December 15, 2006

Iranians begin voting in local elections

TEHRAN, Iran - Iranians voted Friday in local council elections that were expected to be a first test of support for hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad since he took office more than a year ago.

State-run television showed
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, voting and urging others to do the same. State TV also aired footage of Ahmadinejad waiting in line to cast his ballot at a mosque in a middle-class neighborhood.

Ahmadinejad was expected to face some dissatisfaction among conservatives. Some feel the president has spent too much time confronting the West than making changes to improve Iran's economy.

Hossein Entezari, a medical lab technician who voted for Ahmadinejad last year, said he picked local council candidates that campaigned on local issues.

"I voted for those who pay attention to solving traffic problems and creating more greenery in the city more than other things," he said.

Though Iran's reformist movement — which dominated the councils, presidency and parliament in the late 1990s and early 2000s — was largely crushed by the country's hard-liners, some are hoping the council elections will give them a sign that popular support still exists.

Fatemeh Kermani, a 27-year-old teacher, said she believes every vote sends a message.

"I voted for reformist group, and I hope its message is clear," she said.

All the 233,000 candidates, including some 5,000 women, for town and city councils across the country were vetted by parliamentary committees, which are dominated by hard-liners. The committees disqualified about 10,000 nominees, reports said.

Based on survey results, Iran's official news agency IRNA predicted about 64 percent of the 46 million eligible voters were expected to vote. Results were expected Sunday or Monday.

The local councils approve community budgets and planning projects. In smaller cities and towns, the councils elect mayors. In Tehran and other large cities, the councils only propose nominees, and the Interior Ministry chooses.

Friday's vote was the third time Iranians voted for local councils, a reform introduced in 1999 by former reformist President
Mohammad Khatami.

Iran's Parliament Speaker Gholam Ali Haddad Adel on Friday urged people not to wait until the last minute to vote.

"Do not wait for extra time as our football players did last night," he joked. Iran's national soccer team defeated
South Korea 1-0 in 114th minute in Qatar's Asian Games on Thursday night.

Voters on Friday also cast ballots for the Assembly of Experts, a body of 86 senior clerics that monitor Iran's supreme leader and choose his successor.

Voter participation was expected to be lower for the assembly's election because there was little difference among the candidates who are selected by a watchdog controlled by hard-liners.

Among those running for the assembly's seats were former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, former Iranian top nuclear negotiator Hasan Rowhani, and two top hard-line clerics Ahmad Jannati and Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, both prominent supporters of Ahmadinejad.
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