RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.
Iranians are voting today to elect a new parliament, but so many reformist candidates have been barred from running that the choice has come down largely to conservatives who support the president and conservatives who are critical of him.
NPR's Mike Shuster is in Tehran and he joins us now to explain what's going on in this election. Good morning.
MIKE SHUSTER: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Now, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad isn't guaranteed an altogether easy ride today. There's a real rivalry among Iran's conservative forces. Tell us about that.
SHUSTER: There are five slates of conservative candidates that are running in this election. And some of them are loyal to the president, supporting his policies, think he's been doing a good job. But there are a couple that have been highly critical of President Ahmadinejad's policies, particularly on the economy.
Because the president came into office several years ago promising prosperity. He essentially ran on a populist platform but he hasn't delivered. And there's a certain level of disillusionment in the population here that the economy has actually grown worse.
Unemployment has risen and inflation is at about 20 percent. And this past parliament and the president aren't offering any solutions. So in fact conservatives have coalesced around some other fairly well-known conservative figures here and have been particularly critical of Ahmadinejad's economic policies, and now they're running slates.
And it may end up that some of them get much more support and that even though there's a conservative - there's guaranteed to be a conservative majority in the next parliament, they may be highly critical and perhaps confrontational with the president over the next few years.
MONTAGNE: Well, given that the choice does not include a lot of reformers on the ballot, how has turnout been today?
SHUSTER: Well, it's hard to say because this is just anecdotal. But I visited several polling places today that I visited in the past. I was here for the last parliamentary election four years ago and I was here in late 2006 for local elections.
And it feels to me like the turnout is lower, the number of people at these polling places just seems thinner. And in interviewing people I'm also getting an expression of much more cynicism about voting. I've run into many more people this time who simply say they don't want to vote. They don't think that it's worth it, they don't feel that they've been given a choice, and so people maybe staying away from the polls.
Turnout is important to the leadership here and they always emphasize turnout. And we won't know until the very end of the day or perhaps over the weekend just what the turnout has been. But the feel to me is lighter than it has been in the past.
MONTAGNE: Well, given the candidates on the ballot and everything you've just said, will the new parliament that gets voted in today likely bring any change in Iran?
SHUSTER: That's also a question that's hard to answer. The parliament here has certainly much less power than the president or the supreme leader, the cleric Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who ultimately holds most of the political cards in Iran.
But the parliament does represent an expression, a wider expression, of political sentiment in the country. And in talking to voters this week, you hear over and over again that they're dissatisfied with the economic performance of the government and want real change.
They want to see inflation brought under control, they want the opportunity to have more jobs. A lot of people in the private sector want to open up privatization so that the economy can take off. And it's not clear to me that the conservatives understand economics well enough to be able to provide answers, and so that even if there's a conservative majority that perhaps is more confrontational with the president. It's hard to say that they will really advocate solutions to the severe economic problems Iran is facing.
MONTAGNE: And then President Ahmadinejad is up for election this coming year. How much will today's election affect his prospects next year?
SHUSTER: Well, I think that we'll see if the conservative slates that are critical of him do well. Their leaders are likely to want to challenge Ahmadinejad in next year's presidential election. And that will give us some idea about the strength of possible challengers to Ahmadinejad and the relative strength or weakness of his support.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Mike Shuster speaking from Tehran. Thanks very much.
SHUSTER: You're welcome, Renee.
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