By Parisa Hafezi
DUBAI, Feb 22 (Reuters) – Candidates affiliated with Iran‘s Revolutionary Guards looked on course to win a parliamentary majority on Saturday, reportedly leading in the race in Tehran and towns and villages elsewhere, after a vote stacked in favour of the anti-American hardliners.
An Interior Ministry official said a list of candidates affiliated with the Guards led in the capital. Lists linked to hardliners captured 83 seats in towns and villages across the country following Friday’s vote, according to a Reuters tally.
A clean sweep for hardliners would confirm the political demise of the country’s pragmatist politicians, weakened by Washington’s decision to quit a 2015 nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions in a move that stifled rapprochement with the West.
However, Iranian authorities have yet to announce the turnout in the race for the 290-seat legislature — a litmus test of the popularity of hardliners closely associated with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Iran‘s rulers, under intense U.S. pressure over the country’s nuclear programme, need a high turnout to boost their legitimacy, damaged after nationwide protests in November.
Such a result would help the Guards, already omnipresent in Iranians’ daily lives, to increase their substantial influence in political, social and economic affairs.
The demonstrations, which called for regime change, were met with a violent crackdown overseen by the Guards which killed hundreds and led to the arrest of thousands, according to human rights organizations.
Iranians long for stability after a succession of political and economic crises.
MOUNTING U.S. PRESSURE
In the latest challenge for Khamenei, Iran announced the detection of 10 new cases of coronavirus, one of whom has died. The new infections bring the total cases of new coronavirus in the country to 28, with five deaths.
Khamenei faces mounting pressure from the United States over Iran‘s nuclear programme and discontent over mismanagement of the economy is unlikely to ease as sanctions squeeze the Islamic Republic.
President Donald Trump raised the stakes in his standoff with Tehran when Iran‘s top general, Qassem Soleimani, was killed in a U.S. drone strike at Baghdad airport in January.
The spokesman for the watchdog Guardian Council, Abbasali Kadkhodai, predicted that the turnout would be around 50%, telling state television on Friday that the Iranian nation had disappointed its enemies by voting in large numbers.
Turnout was 62% in the 2016 parliamentary vote and 66% of people voted in 2012.
Large gains in Friday’s vote may also hand hardliners another bonus — more leeway to campaign for the 2021 contest for president, a job with wide day-to-day control of government.
Parliamentary elections have little impact on Iran‘s foreign or nuclear policies, which are set by Khamenei, and major pro-reform parties have been either banned or dismantled since 2009.
But the vote reveals shifts in the factional balance of power in Iran‘s unique dual system of clerical and republican rule.
The Guardian Council, a hardline vetting body, has disqualified 6,850 hopefuls out of 14,000, ranging from moderates to conservatives, from contesting parliament polls. About a third of sitting lawmakers have also been barred.
(Additional reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh, Writing by Parisa Hafezi. Editing by Michael Georgy, William Maclean, Ros Russell)