High-stakes Iran election: Parliament, Assembly of Experts up for vote

Updated 6:11 PM EST, Fri February 26, 2016

Story highlights

Iranians will decide members of Parliament and Assembly of Experts

The Assembly of Experts selects the successor to Iran's Supreme Leader

(CNN) —  

Iran’s polls closed late Friday night in a critical election that will determine whether the country will continue with the reforms taken by President Hassan Rouhani or if conservative opposition will sweep into power and possibly derail his agenda.

Voters will determine the members of two crucial governing institutions: the Parliament and the Assembly of Experts.

READ: Here’s why you should care about Iran’s elections

In Rouhani’s 2½ years in office, the president has signed a deal that limited Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. If more hard-liners are elected, relations could regress to stalemate days, putting in jeopardy much of the recent progress, such as the nuclear agreement.

Campaigning in Tehran has been fierce, with billboards and activists from both sides flocking to the streets. Some have even deemed the election as the most important nonpresidential race since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

Many Iranian youths say life has improved under Rouhani, while conservatives express concerns about Western influence in the country. They accuse reformers of selling out to the West and have alleged foreign interference in the election. “Death to America” chants are still common.

“We need to defeat the enemies of our country and always stay vigilant and stop infiltration from the West,” a female voter told CNN on the eve of the vote.

A month before the election, many pro-reform candidates who might support Rouhani and his more moderate agenda were disqualified from participating. Thousands of candidates were blocked from running by an unelected, conservative 12-member group called the Guardian Council.

Human Rights Watch condemned the action: “Serious electoral flaws are restricting the rights of Iranians to run for office and damaging prospects for free and fair parliamentary elections,” it said Wednesday.

Assembly of Experts and the Ayatollah

Friday’s balloting is critical because voters will also determine the makeup of the Assembly of Experts, an oversight body responsible for selecting the Supreme Leader’s successor.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is 76 and has been rumored to be ill. If he dies in the next eight years, the Assembly voted into power Friday will select the next supreme leader.

Khamenei cast his ballot shortly after the polls opened in Tehran.

How voters feel

Despite the anticipated high turnout, some see the election as a pointless exercise.

Niloofar Amroozbeh, a 19-year-old chemical engineering student, said she had not bothered to vote. It would change “nothing,” she said.

“Many of our friends messaged me that we should vote [for] Rouhani’s [list]. And I said, ‘OK – that wouldn’t change anything.’”

Despite the landmark nuclear deal that led to a huge number of sanctions on Iran to be lifted, Amroozbeh said “peoples’ lives haven’t changed a lot.”

Rouhani “wants to” change things, she said, “but he can’t.”

Many Iranian youths favor Rouhani, and that demographic’s support is critical as more than 60% of Iranians are under the age of 30, according to World Bank figures from 2013. Youth unemployment and underemployment have been significant issues for young people.

“It’s obvious that he understands the problem,” said Parnian Seyfe, 19, standing outside the reformist candidates’ headquarters. “And he’s trying to solve it (in logical) ways, not war or anything.”

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Whether the majority of the country agrees with that assessment remains to be seen.

CNN’s Emily Smith and Mick Krever contributed to this report.