CORRECTED – Iran's rulers are expecting a big election turnout amid growing frustration

(Common correction in fifth paragraph should read 2020 instead of 2022)

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iranian voters flocked to the polls on Friday to elect a new parliament in what was seen as a test of the religious establishment's popularity, amid growing frustration over economic problems and restrictions on political and social freedoms.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who described voting as a religious duty, was the first to vote in Iran.

Khamenei said, “Cast your votes as soon as you can…Today the eyes of Iran's friends and those who love it are on the (election) results.” Please your friends and deceive your enemies.

The elections represent the first official measure of public opinion since anti-government protests in 2022 and 2023 turned into the biggest bout of political unrest since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Iran's rulers need more votes to confirm their legitimacy, which has shaken the country after widespread protests. Official polls indicate only about 41 percent will vote. The 2020 parliamentary elections saw an unprecedented 42.5 percent voter turnout. In the 2016 parliamentary elections, the voter turnout was around 62 percent.

More than 15,000 candidates are contesting for 290 seats in Parliament, the Home Ministry said. Preliminary results may start coming out on Saturday.

Iranian activists and opposition groups posted hashtags on social media urging people not to participate in the election, arguing that a high turnout would legitimize the Islamic Republic.

“I'm trying to change the regime and I decided not to vote because it would strengthen the grip of the Islamic Republic,” said Mehran, a 22-year-old university student in the central city of Isfahan. “I would. Live free.”

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Nobel Peace Prize-winning prisoner and women's rights advocate Narkes Mohammadi described the election as a “fake”.

Iran's parliament, which has been dominated by hardliners for more than two decades, has little influence over Iranian foreign policy and the nuclear dispute with the West because Khamenei controls these matters.

* Many crises

With moderate and conservative heavyweights absent from the race and reformists describing it as an “unfree and unfair election,” the contest will be between hardliners and conservatives loyal to Iran's Islamic revolutionary principles.

The painful memories of the recent past are not lost on many reformist Iranians, who still remember dealing with protests that erupted across the country in 2022 after the death of a young Iranian Kurdish woman while in the custody of the morality police. .Authorities responded to the protests with a violent crackdown, including mass arrests and executions.

Economic issues are another challenge. Many analysts say a large number of Iranians have lost faith in the ability of Iran's current rulers to solve an economic crisis caused by a combination of US sanctions, mismanagement and corruption.

Iran-backed groups are attacking Israeli and US targets in Lebanon as tensions rise in the Middle East as Israel wages war against the Tehran-backed Palestinian Islamist movement (Hamas) in Gaza. Red Sea.

Khamenei accused the country's “enemies” of trying to create disillusionment among Iranian voters.

The parliamentary elections coincide with the election of the 88-seat Council of Experts, which will appoint the supreme leader and be tasked with choosing a successor to 84-year-old Khamenei.

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