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Polls open in Iran's parliamentary elections, country's 1st voting in three years
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) ' Polls opened in Iran's parliamentary elections on Friday, the country's first major voting since the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June 2009 and the mass protests and crackdowns that followed.
The balloting for the 290-member parliament is unlikely to change Iran's course over major policies ' including its nuclear standoff with the West ' regardless of who wins, but it may shape the political landscape for a successor to Ahmadinejad in 2013.
In the morning hours, Iranian state TV went live from several polling stations in the capital Tehran, showing long queues of people waiting to cast their ballot. More than 48 million Iranians are eligible to vote at the nearly 47,000 polling stations across the nation.
In the absence of major reformist parties, which were kicked off the political stage over the 2009 post-election riots, Friday's vote is seen as a political battleground for competing conservative factions that support the country's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and those backing Ahmadinejad.
The two top conservative groups, which were once united, have turned against each other after crushing reformists in the upheavals that followed Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election.
The vote is also a curtain raiser for next year's presidential election. A defeat for Ahmadinejad supporters would virtually guarantee a Khamenei loyalist as the next president and present a seamless front against Western efforts to curb Iran's uranium enrichment program.
Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters in Iran, urged the nation to vote in large numbers to disappoint Iran's enemies.
"Because of controversies over Iran and increased verbal threats ... the more people come to the polling stations the better," Khamenei said on state TV after casting his ballot in Tehran early Friday.
"The higher turnout, the better for the future, prestige and security of our country," he added. "The vote always carries a message for our friends and our enemies."
A high turnout will be seen as a major boost for Iran's ruling Islamic theocracy, showing popular support and allowing it to stand firm in the standoff over its nuclear program. The West suspects the program is geared toward making nuclear weapons, a charge Tehran denies, insisting it's for peaceful purposes only, such as energy production.
The conservative split dates back to last year, when many conservatives turned into strong critics of Ahmadinejad after he dared challenge Khamenei over the choice of intelligence chief in April and also over Ahmadinejad's policies.
A strong showing Friday for Ahmadinejad's backers would throw him a political lifeline and the chance to exert some influence over the next presidential election. Anything less would be a slap to Ahmadinejad and assure the next presidency goes to a Khamenei loyalist.
Iran's parliament carries more powers than most elected bodies in the Middle East, including setting budgets and having influential advisory committees such as national security and foreign affairs. The current parliament is led by a former nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani.
But the chamber still lacks any direct ability to force policy decisions on Khamenei or the powerful forces under his control, including the Revolutionary Guard military establishment.