Rouhani allies set for Iran parliament second round win

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Reformist and moderate politicians allied with President Hassan Rouhani won second round parliamentary elections in Iran, unofficial results said Saturday, opening the door to them controlling the legislature.

The outcome, if confirmed officially, would represent a dramatic political realignment in the Islamic republic, with conservative MPs likely being outnumbered by their rivals for the first time since 2004.

It would also be a huge public vote of confidence for Rouhani, who won a landslide election victory in 2013 and went on to clinch a historic deal with world powers over Tehran’s nuclear programme that lifted sanctions.

Voting was extended Friday in the second round elections for almost a quarter of parliament’s seats in what was a crucial showdown between reformists and conservatives seeking to influence the country’s future.

The result could open a delicate path to limited social and cultural change after an era of diplomatic clashes over the nuclear programme that, before Rouhani, had left Iran highly isolated.

It is also likely to herald a parliament that supports the government — the current conservative-dominated chamber has repeatedly blocked Rouhani’s initiatives and even impeached one of his ministers.

The president’s backers made huge gains in the first round of elections, on February 26, when voters drove many conservatives out of the parliament, but still scored eight seats less than them overall.

Of the 68 seats being contested Friday, 33 went to the pro-Rouhani List of Hope coalition and 21 to conservatives, according to the Fars news agency, an outlet close to conservatives.

That would give reformists 128 seats in the new 290-member parliament, shy of a majority but more than their rivals’ 124 MPs, with the rest going to independents who could hold the balance the power.

Another conservative news agency, Tasnim, said Rouhani’s allies had won 35 seats in the second round, which was needed because no candidate won the minimum 25 percent required in the first ballot.

Tension over the Friday vote’s high stakes was underlined by a shooting involving supporters of rival candidates in a southern province. The rare political violence left four people wounded, a security official said.

Iran’s reformists have encouraged foreign investment, support moves for greater diplomatic rapprochement and seek social change and fewer political restrictions at home.

Their electoral gains in February came just six weeks after Tehran’s implementation of a nuclear deal with world powers under the moderate Rouhani.

Around 17 million citizens were eligible to vote Friday and polling took place in 21 provinces, but not the capital Tehran, as reformists won all of the capital’s 30 seats in the first round.

– Rivals seek a majority –

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had urged a strong turnout, saying the vote was no less important than the first round.

Mohammad Reza Aref, a partly US-educated engineer and leader of the reformist pro-Rouhani List of Hope, has set a target of at least another 40 lawmakers.

Gains for the president’s allies will make legislative reforms more likely.

They could also buy time for Rouhani to try and turn around a struggling economy amid concern over the nuclear deal.

Iranian officials including Khamenei have complained that the United States is not honouring its commitments and is in fact taking steps to dissuade non-American banks to do business with Tehran.

Although the conservatives went backwards two months ago they did not change tack, keeping up pressure over what they say is a silent agenda among reformists to give up the principles of the 1979 Islamic revolution.

“We hope that people in this round can have a parliament in line with the goals of Imam and the leadership by electing principlists,” said Gholam-Ali Hadad Adel, head of the conservative coalition.

He was referring to revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his successor Khamenei, Iran’s ultimate authority with powers that far outweigh Rouhani, who was voted into office in a landslide in 2013.

Hadad Adel was a victim of the reformist surge in February, losing his own seat in Tehran.