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Could Iran’s elections lead to real political change?

February 26, 2016 at 8:01 PM EDT
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei casts his vote during elections for the parliament and Assembly of Experts, which has the power to appoint and dismiss the supreme leader, in Tehran February 26, 2016. REUTERS/leader.ir/Handout via Reuters ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. IT IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE.      TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY      - RTX28NM1
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JUDY WOODRUFF: An election was also center stage in Iran today. Voters streamed to the polls in a high-stakes contest with far-reaching consequences.

Turnout was so heavy that voting was extended more than five hours past the original closing time.

Hari Sreenivasan has the story.

HARI SREENIVASAN: It’s an election that could shape Iran for years to come. Millions of people crowded into some 53,000 polling stations.

WOMAN (through interpreter): One shouldn’t be indifferent. I vote for the future of our country and for a higher level of our welfare.

HARI SREENIVASAN: They’re deciding who wins the 290 seats in Parliament, plus the 88 positions in the Assembly of Experts, a group of clerics that chooses the country’s supreme leader.

There were multiple appeals today to get out the vote. The current supreme leader, 76-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has been in power since 1989, and represents conservative hard-liners.

AYATOLLAH ALI KHAMENEI, Supreme Leader, Iran (through interpreter): We have enemies who are eying us greedily. Turnout in the elections should be as such that our enemy will be disappointed and will lose hope. People should be observant and vote with open eyes.

HARI SREENIVASAN: A vetting panel, appointed partly by Khamenei, had blocked thousands of reformist candidates from running for Parliament, and about 80 percent of those running for the Assembly of Experts.

But the more-moderate forces, led by President Hassan Rouhani, hoped to chip away at hard-line dominance.

PRESIDENT HASSAN ROUHANI, Iran (through interpreter): Today, our friends and enemies from around the world are gazing at Islamic Iran. I have no doubt that the Iranian nation, like always, will create another epic turnout at this very sensitive juncture in time.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The vote is, to some degree, a referendum on Rouhani’s promises of greater freedoms and economic reform.

It’s also the first election since the nuclear deal with the U.S. and other world powers signed last summer. Under the agreement, Iran is curbing its nuclear program, in exchange for international sanctions relief.

Just today, the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog found Tehran is mostly complying with the deal so far. The election outcome is also being closely watched in Washington. Full election returns are not expected until early next week.

Joining me now for more on the Iranian elections and what may come next is Thomas Erdbrink. He’s the Tehran bureau chief for The New York Times.

Thomas, we have heard several headlines today that the polls have been full of people, the lines have been long and that they’re extending voting. What have you seen on the ground?

THOMAS ERDBRINK, The New York Times: That’s definitely what I have seen as well, especially in the more middle-class areas of Tehran.

You should know that Tehran is a city of 12 million people, has a lot of different areas, but up in the north and the west of the city, you could see long lines at each polling station almost throughout the day, from the morning all the way up to the evening. There were four extensions in some areas, so people over there really wanted to go out and vote.

But when you would go down to the south of Tehran, where more poorer people live, you would see a different picture, half-empty polling stations, maybe half-a-dozen people around casting their ballots. So, there was a big divide in Tehran.

And, of course, I have no idea what it, nationwide, looked like, but at least one thing is for sure. There was a very high turnout among Tehran’s middle classes, the same people who have supported President Rouhani in the past and are clearly, by voting in this parliamentary elections, also trying to support him now.

HARI SREENIVASAN: We have also heard that this is not — this is certainly not like an American election, and that there has already been a pre-selection of who is allowed to run for many of the open seats.

THOMAS ERDBRINK: Well, of course, it’s always hard to compare elections worldwide, but, yes, it is definitely true.

There is a clerical council that is half elected by the people indirectly and half appointed by Supreme Leader Khamenei. And they have disqualified around 6,000 out of 12,000 candidates for these two elections that the Iranians have been voting for today on Friday.

These people are the gatekeepers of Iran’s electoral process. And what they look at is if someone is loyal to the principles of the ideology of the Islamic Republic, if you will, and also if he or she is a good Muslim.

But, of course, this also gives space for certain political groups not to have the presence that they would like to have in the political process. And this is what happens to the country’s reformists, who saw thousands of their candidates actually being disqualified, but, at the same time, their candidates that were allowed to run today called upon people to massively go out and vote, which their supporters actually did.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Even with these constraints that the clerical council puts on this process, what are the moderates or the reformists hoping to accomplish?

THOMAS ERDBRINK: This election is just a stop in the long road of fighting, if you will, political fighting between people we could refer to as reformists vs., let’s say, hard-liners.

Now, this fight has been going on for decades, and the reformers in the last 10 years, in all honesty, have almost lost every time. Now, what they have been trying to achieve is to make sure that as many of their supporters, of the reformer supporters came out and voted today in order to prevent these hard-liners from keeping their grip on the Parliament.

So, what reformist leaders have been telling me is actually, any seat we can win from the hard-liners is a victory for us.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Thomas Erdbrink, Tehran bureau chief of The New York Times, thanks so much for joining us.

THOMAS ERDBRINK: Thanks for having me.

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