Voting goes into extra time in Iran elections

Tehran (AFP) - Voting in Iran's elections required extra time Friday to allow millions of latecomers to cast ballots in what is a crucial test for moderate President Hassan Rouhani's administration.

As well as picking 290 members of parliament, voters were also selecting the Assembly of Experts, a powerful committee of 88 clerics that monitors the work of the country's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and may choose his successor.

A good result for a pro-Rouhani alliance with reformists called "The List of Hope" could help him curb conservative dominance in parliament and create an opening for domestic reforms.

But it was also a chance for the electorate to issue a rebuke, just one month after sanctions were lifted under a nuclear deal between the government and world powers, meaning the outcome will be seen as a de-facto referendum on the president.

Polls closed at 10pm except in Tehran after repeated extensions had been announced to deal with queues outside polling stations.

The late finish means initial results from provinces and small cities will not come until Saturday, but in Tehran, which with some 5.5 million voters is electing 30 MPs, the outcome may take until Tuesday.

Khamenei, the Islamic republic's ultimate authority, had urged the country's 55 million-strong electorate to vote early, as "it's both a duty and a right".

At 9pm, an electoral official said 28 million had voted nationwide, meaning turnout of 51 percent, but ballots were still being cast so the final figure will be higher.

While standing in line earlier, voters said they would wait as long as it took.

- A reformist comeback? -

"It's worth it," said Zahra Jamshidi, a 23-year-old student in east Tehran who had queued for 40 minutes around 4pm, two hours before the originally announced closing time.

Turnout in parliamentary elections four years ago was 64 percent nationwide and 48 percent in Tehran.

Higher participation would help Rouhani and his reformist allies, after many moderate voters stayed away in 2012 in protest at the re-election three years earlier of hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Known as the "diplomat sheikh" because of his clerical credentials and willingness to negotiate, Rouhani was the driving force behind the nuclear deal, which he delivered despite political pressure at home.

The agreement with powers led by the United States, the Islamic republic's bete noire, raised hopes of recovery in Iran but although the economy exited a deep recession in 2014-2015, growth has stagnated in the past year.

Iran is complying so far with the July 2015 landmark nuclear deal, a report from the UN atomic watchdog seen by AFP showed on Friday.

Lawmakers in Iran are elected for four years but the assembly has eight-year terms. Should Khamenei, who is 76, die during that time its members would pick his replacement.

Khamenei smiled warmly as he presented his identity documents to electoral officials before receiving his ballot paper which he posted in a sealed box.

"Everyone must vote, those who love Iran, those who like the Islamic republic, those who love the grandeur and glory of Iran," said Khamenei, who backed Rouhani's nuclear talks but has continued to rail against US influence.

- 'We need reforms' -

Many young Iranians -- 60 percent of Iran's 79-million population are aged under 30 -- posted selfies on social media as they waited to vote.

"We need to open the doors of our country to the world," said Atefeh Jaberi, a 45-year-old writer, outside Hosseiniye Ershad, a religious institute in north Tehran, who was backing Rouhani's allies.

"We need fundamental reforms, we need to support the government."

The run-up to polling day was largely overshadowed by controversies over who was allowed to stand. Thousands of candidates were excluded.

Reformists said they were worst hit, with the barring of their most prominent faces leaving them with untested hopefuls.

A total of 4,844 candidates, about 10 percent of whom are women, stood in the parliamentary election. Only 159 clerics -- a fifth of the applicants -- were vying for the Assembly of Experts.

The pro-Rouhani list for parliament was headed by Mohammad Reza Aref, a former vice president in the 1997-2005 two-term government of reformist president Mohammad Khatami.

"If we win, the path becomes much smoother," Aref told AFP, saying a similar result as Rouhani's victory of 2013 -- in which he won in a first round with 51 percent of the vote -- could usher in prosperity.

"Hopefully once we win a majority our first step will be an economic boom," he said.

The main conservative faction in the parliamentary polls was headed by Gholam-Ali Hadad Adel, a former parliament speaker who said he was "optimistic" about the polls.