Iranians voted on Friday in their first national poll since the disputed 2009 re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, choosing a new parliament they hope will fix their country's sanctions-hit economy.
The elections, to fill the 290 seats in parliament, were being boycotted by Iran's main opposition and reformist groups, the leaders of which have been under house arrest for the past year.
But Iran's regime said halfway through polling that -- despite the lists offering virtually only conservative candidates -- voters were participating in even greater numbers than in the previous legislative election in 2008, when a 55 percent turnout was recorded.
The regime is keen to show it enjoys widespread popular support when the final official figures for the elections are announced on Sunday or Monday.
Any suggestion of significant abstention would draw attention to alienated reformist supporters, many of whom were subject to a bloody crackdown in 2009 when they protested what they saw as a fraudulent win by Ahmadinejad.
These elections, however, no protests were expected.
Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said a high turnout from the 48-million-strong electorate on Friday would reinforce "the future, prestige, security and immunity of the country," according to state television.
Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former moderate conservative president who has taken his distance from Khamenei, was reported by the ISNA news agency as saying Iran would have a "good" next parliament -- "should the election result be what the people want and be how they cast their votes in the ballot boxes."
The elections were largely seen as a test for Ahmadinejad, with two conservative currents struggling for control of parliament, one backing the president and the other despising him for perceived nationalist views undermining its Islamic vision.
Each faction claims superior fealty to Khamenei, who last year put a lid on the president's expanding ambitions by publicly overriding Ahmadinejad's attempt to sack the intelligence minister.
The US-based rights group Human Rights Watch called the elections "grossly unfair," saying in a statement that "Iranian authorities have stacked the deck by disqualifying candidates and arbitrarily jailing key members of the reform movement."
Several voters echoed Khamenei's assertion that their turnout was a blow to the West, which is imposing sanctions on Iran over its disputed nuclear programme.
Voting was "a slap in the face of arrogance," one voter, 19-year-old teacher Mohammad Mehdi Bahrambeygi, said, repeating Khamenei's phrase referring to the West.
But it was Iran's economy that was the overriding preoccupation.
Runaway inflation, increasingly costly food, high unemployment and the effects of the sanctions aimed at curbing oil sales and international financial transactions have all taken their toll, many voters told AFP in Tehran.
"I want this election to curb inflation. Look, it costs a lot to buy groceries even at the municipality (wholesale) shopping hub," said one voter in the east of the city, shopkeeper Amir Tonekaboni, 40.
"My kids have no job," said Javaher Eslami, a 77-year-old housewife who wanted the next legislature to "help the young get better employment opportunities."
Mohammad Ali Parvazdavani, an 18-year-old student voting for the first time, said the MPs in the next parliament "should be brave and say what the real problems are and try to solve unemployment, and fix the economy to the best of their ability."
The sanctions reflected the West's belief that Tehran is trying to develop the ability to make atomic weapons -- something the Islamic republic has strongly denied, even in the face of suspicions voiced by the UN nuclear watchdog.
Israel, which fears a nuclear-armed Iran, has threatened military action against Iranian atomic facilities.
Tehran has responded to the pressure by saying it could close the strategic Strait of Hormuz at the entrance to the Gulf, helping to send global oil prices sharply higher.
It has also warned of a "devastating" military response if Israel attacks.
Source: AFP Global Edition