Middle East

Iranians urged to heed election 'call of duty'

A woman votes in a mosque in Tehran, 2 March 2012
Image caption Politicians say young people have turned out in large numbers

"It is the logical, ethical and religious duty of the entire nation to support the system and participate in the elections," announced a religious leader in Iran's holy city of Qom.

The country's ruling conservative movement has instructed the country to go ahead and vote - regardless of whether or not they like the candidates on offer.

Officials suggest that a high turnout will deter a military strike by the United States or Israel.

In Tehran, some polling stations have reported long queues of voters. But photos posted online also show little activity at other voting stations.

"As a rule of thumb, people rush to cast their ballots in the last hours," says Mohammed, a supervisor at a voting station in central Tehran.

In this parliamentary election, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei holds all the cards.

Voters in Iran have only been able to cast their ballots for candidates approved by the Guardian Council, a body controlled by the ayatollah.

The opposition Green Movement has not been able to stand. Even candidates favoured by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have been disqualified - as part of an increasingly public fight between the leader and the president.

'Epic attack'

On Friday morning in Tehran, Ayatollah Khamenei decided to set the tone early. He cast his ballot and was then approached by reporters from Iran's state media.

Image caption For many it has been a struggle to understand the candidate lists

"Respected Leader of the Revolution my warm wishes to you," one reporter said delicately. "Your eminence has been among the front runners who cast their ballots in the early hours of voting. At this sensitive juncture what message do you have for [the people]?"

The ayatollah replied: "Today, the more the people come to the ballot boxes, the more profitable it will be for the country.

"The more the enthusiasm and vibrancy of people, the more it will be profitable for the future, better for the reputation and for safeguarding the security and safety of the country."

The ayatollah's message was soon loyally echoed by the government.

"An epic popular attack on the ballot boxes has started," Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar told reporters. "Young people have turned out in large numbers."

International human rights organisations say that this election is profoundly unfair.

In recent months, they say that Iran's security forces have carried out a wave of arrests of lawyers, journalists, film-makers, and political activists - silencing any dissenting voices. The government insists that this has nothing to do with the election.

"My perception is that if you look at the previous parliamentary elections in Iran, this is one of the best from the perspective of the presence of different groups and existence of different political factions and taste among the candidates running for the parliamentary elections," says Tehran's governor, Morteza Tamaddon.

It is a view likely to be strongly contested by an opposition that cannot even find a place on the ballot.

At one polling station in central Tehran, a university professor stood in line with his wife.

"The competition in big cities in Iran differs from the contest in towns and rural areas," he said.

"In smaller places the election is like a family argument. People in towns know their candidates very well and they know what they want - the roads mended, high schools built, water pipe networks developed - but in big cities like Tehran the people are not deeply familiar with their candidates and they do not know exactly what they want."

Mahboubeh, a journalist, said: "In my home village, people are simple farmers and they haven't got the foggiest idea what arguments are about. They vote for the candidate they know - the one who promises to solve their problems better."

Some Iranians say privately that they will not bother to vote.

"Turnout looked really low," wrote Shayan Kaviani on the Facebook page of the BBC Persian service. "Of course [the government] will artificially boost the participation statistics."

The final results are not expected to be declared until Monday. But no-one expects the result to bring any great surprises.

Ayatollah Khamenei and his allies in the Revolutionary Guard rule Iran today. And they will continue to do so after this election is over.