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Tehran (AFP) - Iranians took to the polls Friday in an election expected to see conservatives tighten their grip on parliament, amid voter apathy after the disqualification of thousands of candidates.
Polls shut at midnight (2030 GMT) after at least five extensions beyond the originally scheduled 6:00 pm (1430 GMT) closing time to allow a maximum number of people to cast their ballots.
Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had urged all Iranians to take part as he cast the first ballot in the election, saying that doing so would "guarantee the country's national interests".
The 11th parliamentary election since the 1979 Islamic Revolution comes after a surge in tensions between Tehran and Washington, and Iran's accidental downing of a Ukrainian airliner that sparked anti-government protests.
Turnout was estimated at around 40 percent nationwide and 30 percent in Tehran at 1430 GMT, according to Fars news agency, close to the ultra-conservatives.
Fars said the official turnout figure would be released on Saturday, while results are not expected to be announced until Sunday.
Authorities announced schools will be closed Saturday in dozens of urban centres to allow for ballot counting.
Voters formed long queues in the morning at polling stations in south Tehran, where conservatives have a solid support base. Far fewer were seen waiting to vote in upmarket northern neighbourhoods.
State television showed images from more than 20 cities and towns of people still queued up to vote around 8:00 pm while announcing the second extension.
Some voters in a downtown Tehran mosque said they had turned up late for voting as it was a last-minute decision, an AFP journalist reported.
The election coincided with an outbreak of the new coronavirus that authorities say has killed four people in the Islamic republic this week.
One official accused Iran's enemies of overplaying the spread of the disease in a bid to harm the credibility of the election.
Experts had predicted a low turnout that they said would serve the conservatives at the expense of President Hassan Rouhani, re-elected in 2017 promising more freedoms and the benefits of engagement with the West.
- 'Broken promises' -
Iran fell into a deep recession after US President Donald Trump reimposed sanctions following Washington's unilateral withdrawal from a landmark nuclear deal in 2018.
Amir Bahador Marzpour, a humanities student in Tehran, was one of the many who shunned the election.
"I didn't vote because politicians make promises they don't keep," the 18-year-old said, voicing concern about runaway inflation.
"There are no jobs for young people, and when we finish our studies we won't have jobs."
Around half of the 16,033 hopefuls in the election were barred by the powerful Guardian Council, most of them moderates and reformists.
Iran's beleaguered president, who has come under fire over the sluggish economy, took another hit Friday as a multinational terrorism financing watchdog reinstated sanctions on the country.
The 38-nation Financial Action Task Force said Iran had not taken sufficient measures against money laundering and the financing of terrorist groups.
- Rouhani under fire -
According to the interior ministry, turnout has always been higher than 50 percent in the 10 previous legislative elections.
Many voters voiced disillusionment.
Real estate worker Alireza Hashemi, 25, criticised Rouhani's government.
"After we elected Rouhani everything collapsed. He signed a very bad (nuclear) deal and looked to the West without any real guarantees," he told AFP.
But for Mohsen Jallali, the elections were "completely fair... There was a problem with the candidates who were rejected," he said.
As Rouhani voted, he sought to put a positive spin on the election.
"We are very happy that another glorious day is being added to the history of our country and revolution," he said.
- 'Only a formality' -
In November, demonstrations over petrol price hikes spread across Iran and turned violent before being crushed in a deadly crackdown.
Tehran and Washington have nearly gone to war twice in the past seven months, most recently after the US assassinated prominent Iranian general Qasem Soleimani on January 3.
Millions of people turned out to mourn his "martyrdom", but that unity suffered a blow after Iran admitted it had on January 8 accidentally shot down a Ukrainian airliner, killing 176 people.
The final results of the election, for 290 parliamentary seats across 31 provinces, are not expected before Sunday.
As well as selecting parliamentarians, voters will choose replacements for deceased members of the Assembly of Experts, an 88-strong clerical body tasked with appointing and monitoring the supreme leader.