Conservatives dominate in Iran parliament run-offs

Eds: AMs.

By ALI AKBAR DAREINI

Associated Press Writer

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- Conservatives consolidated control of Iran's legislature in run-off elections but opponents of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gained strength, according to final results Saturday.

The results indicate that the hard-line leader is growing increasingly vulnerable ahead of a bid for re-election next year.

The conservative majority in the 290-seat parliament is divided between supporters of Ahmadinejad and opponents who say he has mishandled a nuclear standoff with the West and concentrated too much on fiery, anti-U.S. rhetoric while neglecting the economy.

Within the conservative bloc, Ahmadinejad's supporters added 27 seats to the 90 they won previously. His moderate opponents gained 11 on top of 42 from the first round in March, according to final results released by the Interior Ministry.

Reformists, who favor greater democracy, closer ties with the West, and reducing clerical powers in Iran, made a respectable showing even after most of their candidates were barred from running.

They added at least 15 seats to the 31 they won in the first round -- a gain of six seats over the 40 they have in the outgoing parliament.

Independents picked up 32 seats on top of 39 they won in the first round. Results for three seats were annulled by the Interior Ministry for unspecified reasons.

Saeed Shariati, a leader of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, the largest reformist party, said the results will check Ahmadinejad's power.

"That Ahmadinejad allies control less than half of the seats means he will face formidable challenges. Given his mishandling of the economy, reformers and moderate conservatives will be in a strong position to stop Ahmadinejad's agenda from inflicting further damages to Iran at home and abroad," he told The Associated Press Saturday.

The Interior Ministry said the conservative camp now controls around 200 seats, attributing some of the seats won by independents to conservatives. But it is almost impossible to determine the political affiliation of independent candidates who have not emerged on any of the lists released by political factions.

It appeared clear, however, that moderate conservatives are now in a better position to challenge the president.

The cleric-run Guardian Council, which is not an elected body, disqualified some 1,700 candidates, most of them reformists who were accused of insufficient loyalty to Islam and its 1979 Islamic Revolution. The conservative camp claims to be loyal to the principles of the revolution and accuses reformists of betraying those principles.

In turn, reformists accuse conservatives of dictatorship, saying the goal of the revolution was to bring freedom that hard-liners have opposed.

The reformists, who could only run in about half the races around the country, say the elections are neither free nor fair because so many candidates have been prevented from participating.

Former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, a moderate conservative who is considered a pragmatist, called for changing election laws.

"It became clear in this election that we need more comprehensive laws in elections. There is a real need for changes from registration to screening qualifications to voting," he said in comments published Saturday.

The Interior Ministry said turnout for the run-offs throughout the country was 26 percent. Turnout in run-off elections are usually low. The ministry said the turnout in the first round in March was 60 percent nationwide.

Shariati said low turnout hurts the reformists.

"Low turnout always means reformists can't win a majority. But reformists always win if turnout is over 55 percent," he said.

Rafsanjani also criticized the low turnout.

"Not showing up at the polls is a kind of self-destruction," the daily Kargozaran quoted him as saying Saturday.