TEHRAN, Iran - Reformist leaders struggled to win at least a substantial minority in parliament as Iranians went to the polls Friday for elections expected to be dominated by hard-liners allied with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Turnout appeared to pick up in the evening after slow balloting through much of the day. Poll stations at mosques and schools in Tehran that earlier had only a handful of voters saw dozens in line after nightfall. Closure of polls was put off several hours.
Iran's reformist movement, which seeks democratic changes at home and better ties with the West, was largely sidelined in the race after most of its candidates were barred from running by Iran's clerical leadership.
With reformists hampered, the race is largely a test of Ahmadinejad's support among conservatives, some of whom have become disillusioned with the president since he came to office in 2005. Ahmadinejad could face a challenge from moderate conservatives in presidential elections next year.
Critics say Ahmadinejad has fumbled efforts to fix the economy of this oil-rich nation — hit by high inflation and unemployment and fuel shortages. They blame his fiery manner for worsening the standoff with the West, bringing on U.N. sanctions over Iran's nuclear program.
At polling stations at a few large mosques in southern Tehran, there were lines of 50 to 60 people soon after voting began Friday morning, with a steady flow of people coming in. Outside, young boys urged passers-by to come in and vote for conservatives.
Many filled their ballots by picking names from printouts of the United Front of Principlists, a slate dominated by Ahmadinejad allies.
Mustafa Rajabi, a 33-year-old government worker, said he voted for backers of the president.
"This is my duty to keep the country stable," he said, standing with his wife, who wore a black chador robe draped over her head and body, and their two children, who were too young to vote.
Many people were more concerned with shopping, packing malls and shops on main street to prepare for the Iranian New Year, Nowruz, which takes place next week. Sherine Faraji said she might vote in the afternoon after shopping.
"If I get to the polls, I'll vote for reformists. They don't bother women," said Faraji, who wore a tight-fitting jacket and a colorful headscarf that showed much of her hair. Conservatives seek to enforce a stricter female dress code covering the entire hair and hiding the body from head to toe.
After sunset, lines of dozens of people formed at many stations in northern and central Tehran, where moderates are seen as having more influence.
In the late afternoon, with several hours of polling still ahead, state television said some 16 million of the estimated 44 million eligible voters across the country — about 36 percent — had voted so far.
Some 4,500 candidates nationwide are running for parliament's 290 seats in Friday's vote.
Reformists say they don't have candidates in around 200 of the races, but they are hoping a strong turnout can boost their presence in parliament to a level where they can have an effect on its deliberations.
Reformists swept elections in 2000 when turnout was around 80 percent. It dropped to around 51 percent in 2004, when many reformists were barred from running, and hard-liners took control of parliament.
Ahead of Friday's vote, the Guardian Council — an unelected body of clerics and jurists — disqualified around 1,700 candidates, mostly reformists, on the grounds they were insufficiently loyal to Islam or Iran's 1979 revolution. The reformist candidates who remain are mostly little-known to the public.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack criticized the elections.
"In essence the results ... are cooked. They are cooked in the sense that the Iranian people were not able to vote for a full range of people," McCormack said. But, he said, this lack of political choice "is not something that is new."
Former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a powerful member of the clerical leadership seen as a top rival of Ahmadinejad, tried to convince those discouraged by the disqualifications to vote.
"To be reluctant and say 'Why should we participate in the election?' is a kind of self-destruction," said Rafsanjani, according to the state news agency IRNA. "This will lead to the absence of their favorite candidates in the council."
Rafsanjani, who lost to Ahmadinejad in 2005 presidential elections, is a moderate conservative figure, but has grown closer to reformists.
Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has backed conservatives, saying earlier this week that Iranians should elect anti-U.S. candidates "whose loyalties are to Islam and justice."
Reformists held parliament from 2000 to 2004. During that time, they loosened Islamic social restrictions. But hard-liners, who control the unelected clerical bodies whose powers trump the parliament and president, prevented deep political change.
The key question Friday will be the performance of Ahmadinejad's conservative critics, a year ahead of presidential elections.
A strong showing Friday by the Inclusive Coalition of Principlists — a slate of candidates that includes conservative critics of the president — would be a sign of Ahmadinejad's waning support.
The list is seen as linked to Tehran's popular mayor, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a conservative often cited as a possible rival to Ahmadinejad in the 2009 election.
Another key candidate in Friday's race is Ali Larijani, who stepped down as Iran's top nuclear negotiator because of differences with Ahmadinejad. Larijani, who is Khamenei's personal representative on the Supreme National Security Council, is running for parliament from the city of Qom and has sometimes also been cited as a possible presidential candidate in 2009.