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Early lead for Iran conservatives

Some polling stations extended their hours to ensure maximum turnout.
Some polling stations extended their hours to ensure maximum turnout.

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Nearly half of the Iranian parliament is critical of general elections proceedings despite the belief that they will not be free or fair.
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TEHRAN, Iran -- Initial results in controversial parliamentary elections in Iran show that Islamic conservatives are winning most of the seats.

Iran's conservative Guardian Council is also claiming a high voter turnout despite a call for a boycott by reformists. Official turnout figures were not immediately available.

The election -- in which conservative religious hard-liners are expected to gain more control -- has been overshadowed by a ban on most reformist candidates and a media crackdown.

Election official Hossein Azimzadeh estimated that up to 2 million of Tehran's 6.4 million voters, or more than 31 percent, cast ballots, the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency reported.

That compares with 42 percent for the capital in parliamentary elections four years ago, according to the Associated Press.

Some polling stations were kept open four extra hours -- two hours beyond the maximum allowed by law -- in an apparent attempt by hard-liners to ensure the highest possible turnout.

Final results are expected Saturday.

More than 46 million people were eligible to vote to choose 290 deputies.

In efforts to counter an expected low turnout, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had called on voters to go to the polls, as a slap in the face of the Islamic republic's "enemies."

Friday's election was considered likely to bring about one of the biggest changes in Iranian politics since reformists promising radical change were swept into office seven years ago.

The election contrasted markedly with polls four years ago. Then, walls were plastered with pictures and campaign posters as the parliamentary elections of 2000 captivated a country that believed it was cementing a solid agenda of reform. Reformist candidates won nearly two-thirds of parliament.

Now the walls are almost bare and observers say hopes embodied by President Mohammed Khatami's 1997 landslide win failed to materialize and his efforts to free up the country's restrictive political and social agenda were rebuffed by hard-line conservative clergymen, who retained the real power.

Last month, the Guardian Council -- which holds a blanket political veto -- sparked Iran's most serious political crisis since the 1979 Islamic revolution by barring 4,000 reformist parliamentary candidates, including the president's own brother and 80 current members.

The reformists accused the hard-liners of staging a parliamentary coup, and criticized the country's supreme leader for allowing the elections to go ahead despite the widespread belief that they will not be free or fair.

Iranian reformist President Mohammad Khatami casts his vote.
Iranian reformist President Mohammad Khatami casts his vote.

"Is not your insistence on holding the elections as scheduled anything but putting your seal of approval on the illegal actions of the Guardian Council?" they asked Khamenei in a six-page open letter.

There were hints of some possible abuses in the voting. According to The Associated Press, police found 51 national ID cards on a man stopped at a roadblock in Doroud, about 240 miles southwest of Tehran, the IRNA reported.

Some analysts and intellectuals have started to openly complain that Iran is becoming a religious dictatorship, little different from the monarchy they deposed 25 years ago.

Many are openly criticizing Khamenei and are disillusioned with his failures, calling on him to act on his frequent promises to resign.

Yet conservatives, looking to regain full political control, are now reported to be positioning a cleric, Hassan Rowhani, to win presidential elections scheduled for next year.

Rowhani was Iran's point man for crucial nuclear negotiations with the West last autumn.

The resulting agreement for intrusive inspections was widely hailed, but even that may develop into a new crisis after international inspectors discovered uranium enrichment centrifuge parts that are much more sophisticated than the type Tehran has admitted to having. (Full story)

-- CNN's Christiane Amanpour, Kasra Naji and Matthew Chance contributed to this report

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