Iran hardliners lose seats on top clerical body

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Tehran (AFP) - Iranian hardliners suffered another election setback Monday with two leading conservatives ejected from the top clerical body, handing another victory to moderate President Hassan Rouhani, whose reformist allies made gains.

The public's rejection of ayatollahs Mohammad Yazdi and Mohammad Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi when picking the powerful Assembly of Experts came as final results were also awaited for parliamentary polls after voting on Friday.

The reformist camp which allied with Rouhani in the elections staged a comeback, especially in the capital where preliminary results Sunday showed them taking all 30 seats at the expense of conservatives.

Campaigning under its "List of Hope", a slate of reformist candidates supporting the president and his government after its recent nuclear deal with world powers secured strong backing and will regain significant power in parliament.

Reformists stayed away from parliamentary elections four years ago, in protest at hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election in 2009, which its defeated candidates said was rigged.

The unanimous sweep in Tehran propelled the reformists forward but results from other cities were split, with conservatives losing seats but retaining high numbers in provinces, an outcome that is likely to mean no group winning a majority.

According to partial results from 274 out of parliament's 290 seats, the main conservative list will have 100 MPs, reformists and moderates from the List of Hope 94, and Independents 11.

There were also four conservative-leaning independent MPs elected and five minorities of no political affiliation.

However, 60 constituencies had no clear winner, meaning a second round run-off will be needed in a field that has more conservatives than reformists and moderates.

- 'A reaction against radicals' -

Several MPs who were vehement critics of Rouhani's nuclear deal and diplomacy with the West lost their seats, with voters flocking instead to the List of Hope.

The results so far represent "a reaction against radicals" from the electorate, Amir Mohebbian, an analyst with close links to politicians of all political hues in the Islamic republic, told AFP.

"But mistakes by the conservatives who supported radicals during the campaign were also to blame" for their losses, he said.

Although the fight for parliament is centre stage, the election for the Assembly of Experts is being closely watched because its members could pick the Islamic republic's next supreme leader should the incumbent, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, die during its eight-year term.

Khamenei, who is 76, stressed the importance himself ahead of the elections, urging the electorate to participate in both polls. Turnout was around 60 percent, interior ministry officials said on Friday, but no official final figure has been issued.

State television reported that Yazdi, the current chair of the assembly, and Mesbah-Yazdi, a figure openly hostile to reformists and close to former hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had failed to be re-elected.

On Sunday they had been placed 17th and 19th in the assembly ballot for Tehran, but only 16 places were up for grabs in the capital.

- Results await approval -

Yazdi, Mesbah-Yazdi and a third hardliner in the assembly, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, were targeted by Rouhani supporters in the election campaign, with the public being urged not to back them.

However Jannati, chair of another influential body in Iran, the Guardian Council, which must approve all election results and which barred thousands of candidates from contesting the polls, scraped re-election, taking 16th place, the last seat available in Tehran.

Rouhani was re-elected to the assembly in third place in Tehran, with his ally and former two-term president Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in first position.

The final results quoted by state television only gave names of clerics successfully elected and did not say where Yazdi and Mesbah-Yazdi finished out of 28 contenders.

Although Rouhani secured the nuclear agreement last July, ending a 13-year standoff over Iran's atomic ambitions, and sanctions were lifted last month he has so far been unable to deliver significant social, cultural or political change at home.

Support from reformists in the next parliament should make that easier, but the resurgent group is also likely to pressure the president for change and concrete progress on long-avoided difficult issues such as demands to free political prisoners.

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