Iranians voted on Friday in an election likely to keep conservatives firmly in control of parliament after unelected state bodies disqualified many reformist foes of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from the race.
But the next parliament may not give Ahmadinejad an easy ride even if conservatives win. They include not just his allies, but critics of his economic policies and politicians looking beyond this election to next year's presidential poll.
Reformists favouring more political and social freedom had hoped to capitalise on public discontent about inflation, now at 19 per cent. But the vetting process and a government crackdown on dissent have muted their challenge. They may struggle to keep the 40 or so seats they held in the outgoing 290-seat assembly.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has effectively endorsed Ahmadinejad and his government, cast his ballot early and urged others to do the same.
"For our country and our nation it is a sensitive day and a sensitive moment that will determine the (nation's) fate," he said, voting soon after polls opened at 8 am (0430 GMT).
Khamenei, not Ahmadinejad or parliament, has the last word on major policy issues such as the international dispute over a nuclear programme which the West suspects has a military goal and is not just for civilian power generation as Tehran says.
The Supreme Leader usually stays above the political fray, but Khamenei has urged voters to favour the government. Food prices, not foreign policy, are what most Iranians worry about in the world's fourth-largest oil producer.
"I hope this time they do a better job and pay more attention to the economy, the housing problem and inflation," said Soraya Tavasoli, a middle-aged woman backing conservatives.
Others are wondering whether to vote at all, despite a call from the clerical establishment for a high turnout to defy Iran's "enemies" – the United States and its Western allies.
"The result is clear. Ahmadinejad's supporters will win again, so why should I bother?" said Farnak, 25, a housewife out shopping who declined to give her full name.
The poll may offer clues on whether Ahmadinejad will win re-election although that may depend more on whether he keeps the support of Khamenei and other parts of the state apparatus.
The president can also rely on loyalists like Hassan Siavashi, 45, waiting at a north Tehran polling station.
"It is my religious duty to vote. I pray that God will help Ahmadinejad's group to win," he said.
Reformists say the vote is unfair because the unelected Guardian Council, which filters candidates on their commitment to Islam and Iran's clerical system, barred many of them from running. But they have urged Iran's 44 million eligible voters to turn out anyway to deny conservatives an easy victory.
Conservatives, who pride themselves on their loyalty to the ideals of the Islamic revolution, controlled the outgoing parliament and backed Ahmadinejad when he ran for president in 2005. Many have since criticised his economic policies.
Hardliners back Ahmadinejad's no-compromise approach to the nuclear dispute with the West, but reformists and moderate conservatives say his fiery speeches have helped prompt three rounds of UN sanctions against Iran.
Former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, a pragmatic politician and foe of Ahmadinejad, urged all Iranians to vote.
"Parliament is very important. One reason is that it should approve ministers. It also has the right to impeach," he told reporters after casting his vote in Tehran.
The Iranian parliament has the power to impeach a president, but has never exercised the prerogative.
Polling stations are due to close at 6 pm (1430 GMT) but in past elections the deadline has been extended. (Reuters)
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