Opponents of hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took an early lead in key races in Iran's local elections, according to partial results announced Monday, with moderate conservatives winning control of councils across the country.
If the final results hold - especially in the bellwether capital, Tehran - it will be an embarrassment to Ahmadinejad, whose anti-Israeli rhetoric and unyielding position on Iran's nuclear program have provoked condemnation in the West and moves toward sanctions at the U.N. Security Council.
"Early results show that Mr. Ahmadinejad's list has suffered a decisive defeat nationwide," the Islamic Iran Participation Front, the largest reformist party, said in a statement. "It is a big 'no' to the government's authoritarian and inefficient methods."
The pro-reformist newspaper Etemad-e-Melli said in an editorial: "The most important message of Friday's vote was that the people have chosen moderation and rejected extremism."
A freelance Iranian journalist of reformist sympathies, Iraj Jamshidi, described the vote as "a blow to Ahmadinejad," who was elected in June 2005.
"After a year, Iranians have seen the consequences of the extremist policies employed by Ahmadinejad. Now, they have said a big 'no' to him," said Jamshidi.
In the key race for Tehran, candidates supporting Mayor Mohammed Bagher Qalibaf, a moderate conservative opposed to the president, had taken the lead.
In the southern historical city of Shiraz, as well as in the provincial capitals of Rasht, northern Iran, and Bandar Abbas, southern Iran, not one pro-Ahmadinejad candidate won a seat on the city council.
The partial results indicated, separately, that reformers might be making a partial comeback, after having been suppressed in the parliamentary elections of 2004 when many of their best candidates were barred from running.
A political analyst, Mostafa Mirzaeian, said Iran's political lineup was changing in favor of more moderate voices - although he stressed those winning were still within the ruling Islamic establishment.
"Results also show that a new coalition has developed between reformers and moderate conservatives, at the expense of hard-line extremists who support Ahmadinejad," he said.