Iran moderates eye more gains in run-off parliamentary election

ANKARA (Reuters) - Iranians voted in a second round of parliamentary elections on Friday, with allies of reformist President Hassan Rouhani seeking to wrest more seats from hardliners.

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Rouhani’s moderate and centrist allies made big gains in elections on Feb. 26 for parliament and a clerical body that will elect the next Supreme Leader, but they failed to win a majority of the 290-member assembly.

People voted on 68 undecided seats in constituencies where candidates failed to get 25 percent of votes cast in the first round.

State TV, citing the Interior Ministry, said vote counting had started in nearly all of the 21 provinces across the country.

Turnout was “good”, it added, without giving figures, and results were expected on Saturday. Some unconfirmed reports on Iranian news websites said Rouhani’s rivals won more seats in some constituencies where vote counting had finished.

The current parliament is dominated by hardline allies of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But moderates won all 30 seats representing Tehran in the first round of elections. Gains by Rouhani’s allies outside Tehran were more limited in the first round.

Reformist former President Mohammad Khatami last Sunday called for a high turnout in the second round of elections to “repeat the epic”, a reference to moderates’ big gains in February.

Iranian media are banned from publishing the name or images of Khatami, president from 1997 to 2005. But he managed to publish a five-minute video on social media before the February vote that helped to change the balance in favor of moderates.

Khamenei also called on Wednesday for a high turnout, saying it would show Iranians’ trust in the establishment. The turnout was 62 percent in February.

An unofficial tally by Reuters of first round results showed conservatives won about 112 seats, reformers and centrists 90 and independents and religious minorities 29.

The figures are approximate because Iran does not have rigid party affiliations. Some candidates were backed by both camps. Moderates have set a target of winning at least another 40 seats.

More than a dozen women have also entered the election. If they win seats, the number of female parliamentarians would be more than 20 combined with those who secured seats in February. It will be the highest number of women lawmakers since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

More independents with no clear affiliation are expected to enter parliament because of the disqualification of thousands of pro-reform candidates by the Guardian Council, a hardline watchdog body, before the first round vote.

Voting in most towns and cities was extended three hours until 10 pm local time (12:30 p.m. EDT).

The new parliament will begin its session on May 27. It has no direct control over major policy matters but it can back the policies of Rouhani to bolster the sanction-hit economy.

International sanctions were lifted in January in exchange for curbs to Iran’s nuclear program under a deal reached with world powers in 2015. A moderate-dominated parliament can also influence the re-election of Rouhani as president in 2017.

Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Giles Elgood and Andrew Heavens