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Big turnout in Iran's high-stake elections

Polls were kept open longer as millions of Iranians cast ballots in crucial elections. The vote is being seen as a contest between pro-reform groups and hardliners opposed to Tehran's growing closeness with the West.

A high turnout was reported on Friday in Iran's

landmark elections for parliament and the so-called Assembly of Experts

(Majles-e Khobregan), a body of religious clerics that is elected every eight years.

Nearly 55 million of the Islamic country's 80 million people were eligible to cast their votes in the elections. The exact turnout was not immediately available, but Interior Minister Abdolreze Rahmani Fazli said Thursday he expected it to be around 70 percent.

Long queues were seen outside polling stations in the capital Tehran and Iran's major cities. Polling places were kept open longer than scheduled due to a "rush of voters."

A test for President Rouhani

The ballot is seen as a test for moderate President Hassan Rouhani, whose government signed off on a nuclear deal with several world powers less than a year ago.

The pro-Rouhani "List of Hope" coalition aims to break conservative dominance in the legislature in order to push through domestic reforms. However, no one expects the vote to usher in radical changes to Iran's domestic politics, which are controlled by the clergy and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters.

Rouhani, who himself is a candidate in the Assembly of Experts election, addressed journalists after casting his vote in Tehran.

"Whoever comes out [as the winner], either in parliament or the Assembly of Experts, with votes of the people, will be respected by us, and everyone will respect the votes of the majority of the people," the president said.

Khamenei's possible replacement

There is a chance that the incoming members of the Assembly of Experts can find a successor to Khamenei, who underwent prostate surgery in 2014, and there have been renewed speculations about his health.

But the supreme leader appeared in an upbeat mood after voting in the capital and reiterated his suspicions over his country's nuclear deal with the West.

"Whoever likes Iran and its dignity, greatness and glory should vote. Iran has enemies. They are eyeing us greedily," Khamenei said.

Rouhani's administration is trying to

improve ties with the West,

which have been strained since Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979.

Watch video 02:03

Iran holds first elections since nuclear deal

Thousands of candidates excluded

The elections were preceded by

one week of campaigning,

in which Rouhani had hoped to focus on how his administration had overseen a growing economy. His wishes were somewhat thwarted, however, as controversy erupted over which candidates were actually eligible to run for office.

Reformists claimed they were the worst hit by electoral bans as thousands of candidates were barred from candidacy.

Of a total 4,844 parliamentary candidates across the country, approximately 10 percent are women. Some 159 clerics are seeking positions on the 88-member Assembly of Experts.

Initials results are expected within 24 hours of the poll closing, but a final vote tally is likely to take three days.

Watch video 01:32

Iran to elect Assembly of Experts

shs/sms (AP, Reuters)

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