Iranians started voting Friday in second round elections for almost a quarter of parliament’s seats, the latest political showdown between reformists and conservatives seeking to influence the country’s future.
Polling stations opened at 8:00 am (0330 GMT) for the ballot which is taking place in 21 provinces, but not Tehran, because no candidate in 68 constituencies managed to win 25 percent of votes cast in initial voting on February 26.
Reformists who backed moderate President Hassan Rouhani made big gains in the first round following Iran’s implementation of a nuclear deal with world powers, which lifted sanctions blamed for long hobbling the economy.
Conservative MPs, including vehement opponents of the West who openly criticised the landmark agreement that reined in Iran’s atomic programme, lost dozens of seats and were wiped out in Tehran where reformists won all 30 places in parliament.
However Friday’s voting — in which the top two candidates from the first round contest seats head to head — covers 55 smaller towns and cities where conservative support held up in February.
The split result in February — reformists won 95 seats and the conservatives 103 with nominally independent candidates and minorities sharing others — meant no faction won a majority.
The outcome of the second round could potentially change that.
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei urged strong turnout and has said that Friday’s voting is no less important than the first round.
Mohammad Reza Aref, leader of the reformist pro-Rouhani List of Hope, has set a target of at least another 40 seats in the 290-seat parliament.
Gains for the president’s allies would make legislative reforms more likely.
However if conservatives perform more strongly amid concern over the nuclear deal — Iranian officials including Khamenei have complained that the United States is not honouring its commitments — Rouhani’s hopes for a more pro-government parliament could founder.
Although the conservatives went backwards two months ago they have not changed 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, who is Iran’s ultimate authority with powers that far outweigh Rouhani, who was voted into office in a landslide in 2013.