After a panel of religious conservatives and appointed attorneys disqualified 2,400 liberal candidates, many of those in favor of reform boycotted the voting, disillusioned with attempts to democratize the Islamic state.
The blacklisted candidates included reformist activists and politicians who sought to curb the powers of ruling clerics.
With conservatives highly likely to reclaim the 290-seat parliament, the fight became focused on voter turnout rather than election results. Polls remained open for two hours after the official closing time in many areas, as both reformists and conservatives watched voter turnout as a gauge of public sentiment.
Conservative elements of the government responded to the call for a boycott by using state-run radio and television to encourage voting. Opponents of the vote reportedly used e-mail, Web sites and cellular phone text messaging to spread news of their protest.
“Don’t take part in the funeral of freedom,” said one text message, according to the Associated Press.
The Reuters news agency quoted an Interior Ministry source as saying national voter turnout was between 47 percent and 52 percent. In Tehran, an epicenter of the largely student-run reform movement, the ministry source told Reuters that turnout was between 20 percent and 25 percent.
Islamic Participation Front, the largest reformist group, is not contesting the vote despite many of its top members being disqualified, the BBC reported.
Shirin Ebadi, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and a key figure in Iran’s reform movement, was also among those boycotting the election.
The clerical leadership of the nation declared much of the boycott effort an effort to undercut the Islamic revolution.
“You see how those who are against the Iranian nation and the revolution are trying so hard to prevent people from going to the polls. I do not think these enthusiastic young people will be prevented from fulfilling their duty,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said.
President Mohammad Khatami, a leader of the moderate reformers, was described in media reports as stone-faced as he cast his ballot and conceded: “Whatever the result of the elections, we must accept it.”
State television also broadcast a litany of comments from voters saying that participating in the poll would show Iran’s defiance against those opposed to the Islamic government, including the United States.
“We can gouge out the eyes of the enemy,” one man in northern Iran told state media. “Each vote is like a slap to America’s face.”
American and European Union leaders have expressed concern at the controversy surrounding the poll.
“Candidates have been barred from participating in the elections in an attempt to limit the choice of the Iranian people,” U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli told reporters. “These actions do not represent free and fair elections and are not consistent with international norms.”
In 2000, turnout was 67 percent as reformers gained two-thirds of the 290 parliamentary seats.