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Mon 17 Mar 2008 11:58 AM

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Conservatives stroll to victory in Iran poll

Conservatives expected to secure 71% of seats in legislative elections, Interior Ministry announces.

Iran's conservatives on Sunday retained control of parliament with a comfortable majority in legislative elections, despite a respectable showing by reformists who suffered heavy pre-vote vetoes.

Conservatives are expected to secure 71% of seats, the Interior Ministry announced, in a vote the EU said was "neither free nor fair" owing to the mass disqualification of reformist candidates.

It remains to be seen how supportive the new parliament will be of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who must seek re-election next year against a background of popular discontent over Iran's high inflation.

"The fact that people have again entrusted parliament to the principalists is something to be treasured," Shahabeddin Sadr, the spokesman of the main conservative coalition, told newswire AFP.

Conservatives have won 163 seats so far in the 290-seat chamber and 54 of their candidates would compete in run-off votes next month, English-language state television channel Press-TV said, quoting the Interior Ministry.

Reformists had won 40 seats so far, it added, meaning Iran's embattled moderates have managed to hold on to at least the same representation they had in the outgoing parliament despite the disqualifications.

Reformists hailed their performance as "remarkable" under circumstances that saw hundreds of their best candidates, including sitting MPs, disqualified by hardline bodies for insufficient loyalty to revolutionary values.

"Despite all the restrictions... we managed to disturb the game of our opponents," reformist coalition spokesman Abdollah Nasseri told reporters.

The authorities were swift to hail turnout of around 60% as a "glorious" vote of confidence in the Islamic revolution, after touting the polls as a display of national unity at a time of tension with the West.

"Once again, your glorious and powerful presence in the election foiled enemies' plots. Their psychological war to make low turnout was no more than an empty bubble," said Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

However international reaction was less effusive.

The pre-vote disqualifications meant "the election was neither fair nor free", said the EU's Slovenian presidency.

The results are "cooked in the sense that the Iranian people were not able to vote for a full range of people", US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack commented.

Partial results from Tehran, which sends 30 MPs to parliament, showed a resounding victory for conservatives, with parliament speaker Gholam Ali Hadad Adel polling the most votes.

He was followed by 13 other conservatives, including four members of the Sweet Scent of Service list of diehard Ahmadinejad loyalists, who were set to be elected directly to parliament without having to go into a run-off.

Iran's former top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani, standing for conservatives in the holy city of Qom and tipped as a future speaker, was elected by a landslide 70%-plus of the vote.

Not all conservatives are wholeheartedly supportive of Ahamdinejad, who has unsettled even hardliners with his provocative rhetoric in a row with Western powers over Iran's controversial nuclear programme, as well as expansionary economic policies.

The main conservative coalition was the "Unified Principalists Front" but a breakaway coalition named "Broad Principalists Coalition" that was distinctly less enthusiastic about Ahmadinejad emerged in the election.

Iran is also enduring inflation of almost 18%, a problem economists blame on the government injecting massive amounts of cash into the economy to fund infrastructure projects in the provinces promised by the president.

But Ahmadinejad is still believed to enjoy great support amongst the urban poor, especially outside the capital.

Moderate analyst Mohammad Soltanifar said the new MPs "may ask for some things from Ahmadinejad and may make complications. But all in all there will be no danger for Ahmadinejad's government".

Compared with other legislatures in the region, Iran's parliament wields a respectable amount of power, but its capacities are limited by the unelected Guardians Council, which must approve all legislation.