TEHRAN, Iran (AP) – Iranians turned out in heavy numbers Friday for local council elections that could be a gauge of popular dissatisfaction with hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and liberals’ potential to rebuild their suppressed movement.

Farideh Borna, a student, said she voted for a “pro-Ahmadinejad” slate of candidates because “I wanted to help him to fulfill his promises.”

But Ahmadinejad was expected to lose the support of fellow conservatives who feel he has spent too much time confronting the West and failed to deal with Iran’s struggling economy.

Independent observers said the turnout appeared to be higher than in previous elections, including one in June of last year that brought Ahmadinejad to power.

Polling hours in Tehran were extended for three hours to accommodate long lines. The head of the electoral organization, Deputy Interior Minister Mojtaba Samareh Hashemi, told state TV that many polling stations had asked for more ballots.

“The number of voters has exceeded expectations,” he said.

First results were expected Sunday, with final results expected Monday or later.

“The elections are a chance to demonstrate the nobility of the Iranian people,” Ahmadinejad said. State TV showed the president waiting in line to cast his ballot at a mosque in a middle-class district of Tehran.

People eagerly discussed the election in the streets of Tehran.

Hossein Entezari, a medical lab technician, said he voted for Ahmadinejad last year, but this time picked candidates who had campaigned on local issues.

“I voted for those who pay attention to solving traffic problems and creating more greenery in the city more than other things,” he said.

Liberals are hoping that the local elections will show there is still public support for their policies. They held the presidency and dominated parliament and local councils in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but have been largely crushed by hard-liners in recent years.

“I voted for the reformist group, and I hope its message is clear,” said Fatemeh Kermani, a 27-year-old teacher.

At least one government figure tried to make political capital out of the heavy turnout. Top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani said it would force the West to reconsider its line against Iran’s enrichment of uranium, a process that can produce material for nuclear bombs.

“The high and serious voting will make the West suspend its bullying and adventurous approach to the nuclear case,” state TV quoted Larijani as saying, noting that the West would not be able to overcome the expression of “the national will.”

All the 233,000 candidates for town and city councils, including some 5,000 women, were vetted by parliamentary committees that are dominated by hard-liners. The committees disqualified about 10,000 nominees, reports said.

The local councils approve community budgets and planning projects. In smaller cities and towns, the councils also elect the mayor.

In Tehran and other large cities, the councils propose mayoral nominees, and the Interior Ministry chooses among them.

Friday’s vote was only the third time that Iranians had voted for local councils, a reform introduced in 1999 by former President Mohammad Khatami.

Voters also cast ballots Friday for the Assembly of Experts, a body of 86 senior clerics that monitors Iran’s supreme leader and chooses his successor.

Turnout was expected to be lower in the assembly election because there was little difference among the candidates, who were selected by a watchdog controlled by hard-liners.


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