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Last Updated: Saturday, 21 February, 2004, 21:28 GMT
Iran conservatives 'in the lead'
An unidentified cleric votes in Mashhad, east of Tehran
Supporters of clerical rule had urged people to vote
Early results from Iran's general elections suggest that conservative supporters of clerical rule are heading for a sweeping victory.

This had been widely predicted after more than 2,000 reformist candidates were disqualified from standing.

Much attention has been focused on the size of the turnout.

First indications are that it was lower than in elections four years ago that saw a reformist majority elected to Iran's parliament, the Majlis.

Turnout in the capital Tehran was 28% of eligible voters, one election official was quoted as saying late on Saturday.

That would be more than pre-election forecasts, but it is not indicative of national turnout, which is likely to be much higher due to regional variations across the country, observers say.

These actions do not represent free and fair elections and are not consistent with international norms
US state department spokesman

Some pro-reform groups had called for a boycott of the poll, while supporters of clerical rule urged people to vote.

Iran's conservative supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei hailed the elections as "totally free, healthy and legal", calling them a victory over the United States and other would-be "interventionist oppressors".

With more than half the results counted, Iran's main reformist party said it did not expect to win more than a third of the seats in the 290-member Majlis.

"If free elections had been held, we would have won a majority with 200 seats," said Mostafa Tajzadeh, of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, the largest reformist party.

Validation possible

The BBC's Jim Muir says the size of the voter turnout is a key issue.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

He says unofficial indications put it at around 40% to 50% - higher than the disqualified reformists would have liked and high enough to allow the conservatives to claim a reasonable validation from the voting public.

The US has strongly criticised the Iranian election in what correspondents said was unusually strong terms.

"Candidates have been barred from participating in the elections in an attempt to limit the choice of the Iranian people for their government," state department spokesman Adam Ereli said.

"These actions do not represent free and fair elections and are not consistent with international norms."

Our correspondent says one significant feature of the result so far is that among the candidates returned there has not been a single woman - there were 13 in the outgoing reformist-dominated chamber.

Candidate ban

The poll follows seven years of attempted reform by President Mohammad Khatami, who has sought to allow greater freedom of speech and loosen Islamic cultural and social restrictions.

The decision to disqualify 2,300 reformist candidates - including 80 members of parliament - from standing was taken by the country's hardline Council of Guardians, a 12-member vetting body partly appointed by Ayatollah Khamenei.

The council said the disqualifications were necessary because of the candidates' alleged indifference to Islam and to the constitution, or accused them of questioning the supreme leader's powers.

The Islamic Iran Participation Front, led by President Khatami's brother Mohammad Reza Khatami, and the main pro-reform student movement boycotted the poll.

But other reform factions closer to the centre of the political spectrum did take part.

Final results are not expected until next week.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Jim Muir
"Most ordinary Iranians basically just want a better life"




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