Iran March 2, 2012 (Reuters)
A woman casts her ballot during Iran's parliamentary election at a mosque in southern Tehran, March 2, 2012. Photo by Reuters
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Conservative rivals of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were leading in the race for parliament, according to early election results Saturday, an indication the Iranian president may face a more hostile house in the remaining 18 months of his second term in office.

The strong showing by loyalists of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Friday's parliamentary elections also reflected staunch support for Iran's theocracy and its firm stance in the nuclear standoff with the West.

Early returns Saturday in the capital Tehran showed Khamenei loyalists have pulled ahead. Partial results from provincial towns also show conservative Ahmadinejad rivals were elected in many constituencies.

State media said the turnout was estimated at over 67 percent from among 48 million Iranians eligible to vote.

The conservatives' lead had been expected as the balloting for the 290-seat parliament had boiled down to a popularity contest between two conservative camps - those opposing Ahmadinejad and those backing the president.

The elections were the first major vote since Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election in June 2009 and the mass protests and crackdowns that followed.

With the opposition crushed in the brutal crackdowns over the past three years and major reformist factions absent from polling stations, the outcome of the elections is unlikely to change Iran's course over major policies - including its refusal to halt uranium enrichment that the West fears is geared toward weapons making, military and oil policies.

A win by his rivals will weaken Ahmadinejad's camp ahead of the 2013 presidential race.

In another embarrassment, Parvin Ahmadinejad, a younger sister of the president, was defeated by a conservative rival in their hometown of Garmsar. Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, whose daughter is married to Khamenei's son, was leading in Tehran, followed by other Khamenei loyalists. Another Ahmadinejad opponent and current parliament speaker, Ali Larijani, won a seat from the city of Qom, a religious center.

Out of 189 winners that emerged by Saturday noon, at least 97 were conservative Ahmadinejad opponents. Also elected were six liberal-leaning candidates opposed to Ahmadinejad. The remaining 86 seats were split between Ahmadinejad supporters and centrists. Authorities said 15 seats will have to be decided in runoffs.

More than 3,440 parliamentary hopefuls - all vetted by Iran's ruling Islamic system and none with links to the opposition Green Movement that led protests after Ahmadinejad's hotly disputed re-election - ran in the elections.

The state media said the balloting was a snub at Iran's enemies who had allegedly hoped for a low turnout that would show divisions and a weakened Islamic theocracy, making it easier for the West to pressure Iran over its nuclear program.

"International media were surprised by the high turnout," state TV proclaimed Saturday. "It was a slap in the face of the U.S." The front-page headline in the hard-line daily Kayhan Saturday said the enemy was "checkmated."

Nationwide, final results are expected to be released during the weekend and early next week. Results in small towns, with few representatives in parliament, appear sooner than cities like Tehran, which has some 5 million eligible voters and 30 legislators.

The new parliament will begin its work in late May. It is expected to boost the voices of hard-line opponents of Ahmadinejad in next year's presidential elections.

The split among the conservatives, who were once united, dates back to last year when the president fell out of favor with the supreme leader after he dared challenge Khamenei over the choice of intelligence chief in April.

Many conservatives, who had supported Ahmadinejad's re-election, then turned against him. In parliament, lawmakers moved on a petition to summon Ahmadinejad for questioning over a long list of accusations, including corruption.

Ahmadinejad - the first Iranian president ever to be summoned by lawmakers - is expected to be grilled in parliament early next week.

Friday's vote was also a curtain raiser for next year's presidential election. With Ahmadinejad's camp sidelined, it practically assures the presidency will go to a Khamenei loyalist. Ahmadinejad, who cannot run for a third term, will have less of a chance to exert any influence over the choice of his successor.

"Ahmadinejad's era will be over if final election results show a defeat for his supporters," said prominent political analyst Davoud Hermidas Bavand. "We have to wait for the final results but it can be said that Ahmadinejad is almost politically spent."