By an IPS Correspondent
TEHRAN, 28 Feb. (IPS)   Millions of Iranians went to the polls on thisa chilly Friday to elect their representatives, among more than 210,000 candidates, for city councils in thousands of towns and villages, among them for the first time candidates from banned parties and groups, including the Iran Freedom Movement (IFM) and the Nationalist-religious as well as women, who represents 20 per cent of the candidates.    

Among the 1,300 vying for the 15 seats in Tehran are the wives of Dr. Hashem Aqajari, the university professor who is condemned to death, and of Dr. Qasem Sho´leh Sa´di, an outspoken critic of Ayatollah Ali Khameneh’í, the leader of the Islamic Republic and the present theocracy, arrested Monday on his return to Tehran, coming from Paris.

Mrs. Sho’leh Sa’di is running on the ticket of the Nationa Coalition of Iranians for Freedom, a new political group formed by Mr. Mohsen Sazegara and Mr. Sho’leh Sa’di to encourage people to force hands of the rulers to agree with a referendum allowing Iranians to choose their own regime.

This is the second such elections organized in Iran since the victory of the Islamic Republic in 1979. Turnout in 1999 was 64.41 percent across the country, but many observers expect it to be lower this time amid voter disillusion with reformist failings.

The official news agency IRNA quoted the Head of the Elections Headquarters of the Ministry of Interior Morteza Mobalegh said here Friday in most parts of the country more than 70 percent of eligible voters went to the polls.        

    Mobalegh who was speaking to reporters on 18:00 pm local time said the number of those who cast votes is expected to rise in the hours before the voting ends.  
In Tehran, which is the throbbing heart of Iran's politics, 1351ticket holders are racing for 15 seats, with over four million eligible to vote.

            The elections started amid bitter controversy and feud between the ruling conservatives and the “official” reformists, with the latter accusing the hard liners to have boycotted the race and encouraged people not to go to polls, as contrary to other elections in the Islamic Republic, candidates to the city councils are not vetted by the leader-controlled Council of Guardians, but the Interior Ministry, which is under the control of President Mohammad Khatami.

In fact, leaders of the League of Islamic Associations, a shadowy but much feared group that is believed to control the leadership of the regime and dictate its policies on the clerical rulers, including Mr. Khameneh’I, have, in days before the elections, said “faithful would not take part in these elections, as they are supervised by the Interior Ministry,

In a speech on Thursday, Ayatollah Khameneh’I expressed his displeasure for the records of many city councils, including that of the Capital, which was torn by bickering among the reformists who controlled the town’s council.

    As a result, the Interior Ministry dissolved the Tehran City Council last month.  
"The activities of certain municipal councils have created problems for their towns”, he observed, with the Tehran city council in mind.

However, as he called on the voter to vote for the "faithful”, Mr. Khatami advised them to place competence of the candidates above other considerations.
Mr. Khatami also hailed the first councils as a "successful experience despite some problems" as he cast his vote in one of the polling booths.          

"Some of the deficiencies and shortcomings are related to the regulations and I hope that we will see these problems be tackled in the second councils," he said.      

Analysts say today’s elections would be a test to President Khatami, since he has lost his capital of sympathy with the people, mostly the young ones, after failing to deliver pledges of establishing a civil society and the rule of law.

In fact, since he was swept to the presidency in the May 1997 elections, thanks mostly to the votes of young generation and women, Mr. Khatami has systematically stepped back in front of assaults launched against his reforms and yielded to them, imprisoning his closest friends, shutting down around 100 newspapers, most of them supporting his reforms, and moving slowly towards the positions taken by the unpopular leader. ENDS CITY COUNCIL ELECTIONS 28203