TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran's supreme leader urged Iranians to vote in large numbers as the country held parliamentary elections Friday, saying a high turnout would send a strong message to the enemies of the nation in the nuclear standoff with the West.
The balloting for the 290-member parliament is the first major voting since the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June 2009 and the mass protests and crackdowns that followed.
It is unlikely to change Iran's course over major policies — including its controversial nuclear program — regardless of who wins, but it may shape the political landscape for a successor to Ahmadinejad in 2013.
And with the opposition effectively crushed, the elections amount to a popularity contest between conservative supporters of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and their rivals who back Ahmadinejad.
Khamenei, who has final say on all state matters in Iran, said it was a "duty and a right" for every eligible Iranian to vote, especially now that the "Iranian nation is at a more sensitive period" amid the confrontation with the West.
"Because of the controversies over Iran and increased verbal threats ... the more people come to the polling stations, the better for the country," Khamenei said after casting his ballot in Tehran early Friday.
"The higher the turnout, the better for the future, prestige and security of our country," he added. "The vote always carries a message for our friends and our enemies."
A high turnout will be seen as a major boost for Iran's ruling Islamic system, showing popular support and allowing it to stand firm in its refusal to halt uranium enrichment. The West suspects Iran's program is geared toward making nuclear weapons, a charge Tehran denies, insisting it's for peaceful purposes only, such as energy production.
Iranian state TV went live from several polling stations in Tehran and the provinces, showing long lines of people waiting to vote, followed by a commentary saying the lines were a "disappointment to the bad-wishers."
It claimed the U.S. and its allies were hoping for a low turnout that would show divisions and a weakened Islamic theocracy, making it easier for the West to pressure Iran over the nuclear issue. The TV headlines proclaimed the elections as a day of "national solidarity" and a "rebirth of the nation."
More than 48 million Iranians are eligible to vote at the nearly 47,000 polling stations across the nation.
In the absence of major reformist parties, which were kicked off the political stage over the 2009 post-election turmoil, Friday's vote is seen as a political battleground for competing conservative factions supporting Khamenei and those backing Ahmadinejad.
The two groups were once united but turned against each other after crushing reformists in the upheavals that followed Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election. The split dates back to last year, when many conservatives turned into strong critics of Ahmadinejad after he dared challenge Khamenei over the choice of intelligence chief in April and other policies.
The vote is also a curtain raiser for next year's presidential election. A defeat for Ahmadinejad's supporters would virtually guarantee a Khamenei loyalist as the next president and present a seamless front against Western efforts to curb Iran's enrichment program.
But a strong showing Friday for Ahmadinejad's backers would throw him a political lifeline and the chance to exert some influence over the next presidential election. The president, usually eager to talk to the media, avoided journalists as he cast his ballot around noon Friday in Tehran.
Mohsen Rezaei, a conservative rival of Ahmadinejad's in the 2009 presidential elections, predicted that "no one will have a majority" in the next parliament.
Former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, also a bitter Ahmadinejad rival, said in an allusion to vote tampering of the past that a "good parliament" will emerge if the ballots are properly counted.
"God willing, the outcome of the elections will be what the people want," he said.
Iran's parliament carries more powers than most elected bodies in the Middle East, including setting budgets and having influential advisory committees such as national security and foreign affairs. The current parliament is led by a former nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani.
But the chamber still lacks any direct ability to force policy decisions on Khamenei or the powerful forces under his control, including the Revolutionary Guard military establishment