Iran's Rouhani secures more moderate parliament

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Arthur MacMillan
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Tehran (AFP) - Iran's President Hassan Rouhani secured his goal of a more moderate parliament Monday after elections saw hardliners soundly trumped by reformists and conservatives lose seats as voters implicitly backed the government.

Final results showed the vote being split three ways between Rouhani's reformist and moderate allies, conservatives and independents, a result that gives the president more leverage to bring about domestic change.

No single group had a decisive share of parliament's 290 seats from Friday's voting, but tallies suggested the pragmatic Rouhani would be able to muster support from key backers and create a working majority.

The outcome signalled strong public support for last year's nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, an agreement steered by Rouhani which saw the lifting of sanctions in January after years of economic hurt.

"Kudos to the history-making nation of Iran. Let's open a new chapter based on domestic talents & global opportunities," the president wrote on Twitter soon after the last results were read out on state television.

Friday's second election -- for the clerical Assembly of Experts -- also produced symbolic gains for Rouhani and his closest allies.

Two renowned hardline ayatollahs lost their seats on the 88-member assembly, a powerful committee that monitors supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's work and will pick the 76-year-old's successor if he dies during its eight-year term.

In contrast, 15 of 16 candidates from the list for the assembly headed by Rouhani and his veteran political backer Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a two-term former president, were resoundingly voted in.

Rafsanjani came first and Rouhani third. A push by their supporters, largely on social media, helped eject current assembly chair Mohammad Yazdi and the ultraconservative Mohammad Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi, formerly a close adviser to ex-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, another hardliner.

The most dramatic change, however, was the resurgence of the reformists, a political camp largely silenced after a disputed election in 2009 saw Ahmadinejad re-elected.

That vote was followed by bloody street protests in which dozens of people were killed in what is widely considered the Islamic republic's darkest hour.

Reformists swept the capital, and in an electoral first did so without requiring a second round of voting in any of the 30 seats they secured.

After campaigning as the "List of Hope", a slate of reformist politicians who support the government will regain significant power in parliament and are likely to push for social, cultural and political reforms.

Reformists stayed away from parliamentary elections four years ago in protest at Ahmadinejad's earlier victory, with defeated candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who remain under house arrest, having alleged that the vote for the presidency was rigged.

- 'Reaction against radicals' -

While conservatives were wiped out in Tehran they retained some seats in other cities and enjoyed strong support in rural areas.

The main conservative list secured 103 MPs, reformists and moderates from the List of Hope 95, and Independents 14, while five seats went to minorities and four to candidates with no single affiliation.

Some 69 constituencies had no clear winner, meaning a second round run-off will be needed in a field that has more conservatives than reformists and moderates.

But many of the conservatives already elected are moderates who backed Rouhani on the nuclear deal. Acutely aware of the public's shifting mood and tacit approval of openness toward the West, they are likely to support him again.

Such a spirit of cooperation came from Ali Larijani, a conservative and parliament's current speaker, who described the election as "eye-catching" and said "a new page had been opened for the country".

Larijani's political heft was crucial to the nuclear deal being approved by MPs as he spoke up for Rouhani's government at key moments during the more than two years of negotiations that led to the accord.

The election results represent "a reaction against radicals" from voters, Amir Mohebbian, a Tehran-based analyst with close links to politicians of all hues, told AFP.

"But mistakes by the conservatives who supported radicals during the campaign were also to blame" for their losses, he said.

The elections were seen as a crucial indicator of the future direction Iranians want for their country, 37 years after revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini founded the Islamic republic.

From a population of almost 80 million -- 60 percent of which is no older than 30 -- 62 percent of 55 million eligible voters cast ballots.

Khamenei himself stressed their importance ahead of the elections, urging the electorate to participate in both polls.

Although Rouhani secured the nuclear agreement last July, ending a 13-year standoff over Iran's atomic ambitions, and sanctions were lifted last month he has so far been unable to deliver significant domestic reform.

Support from reformists in the next parliament should make that easier, but the resurgent group is also likely to pressure the president for change and concrete progress on long-avoided difficult issues such as demands to free political prisoners, which could lead to conflict with conservatives.