TEHRAN, March 2 (Reuters) - Faithful supporters of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei flocked to the polls early on Friday but most reformists stayed home, saying the parliamentary election was meaningless.
“I am here to back Ayatollah Khamenei,” shopkeeper Houman Riyazi, 50, said at a polling station in southern Tehran.
Khamenei called for a high turnout in the election, seen as a test for the popularity of the clerical establishment, which was rocked by the bloody aftermath of a 2009 presidential vote that reformists said was rigged in Ahmadinejad’s favour.
“I am slapping America in the face with my vote,” seminary school student Reza Ghoreishi, 25, said in the holy Shi’ite Muslim city of Qom, echoing Khamenei’s rhetoric.
“Death to America, death to Israel, death to all arrogant powers,” he intoned.
With reformists mostly sidelined and opposition leaders Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi under house arrest, the election is mostly a race between rival conservative hardliners - those loyal to Khamenei and those in Ahmadinejad’s camp.
“I voted in 2009 and look what happened. Why should I bother this time?” asked Houshang, 22, who would only give his first name. He was expelled from university for his part in eight months of street protests after Ahmadinejad’s re-election.
“My life changed because of that vote. I will not repeat the same mistake twice,” he said.
Police guarded main squares and streets in Tehran and other cities, but there were no immediate reports of violence.
In wealthier north Tehran, most polling centres were empty for hours after they opened before voting picked up. State television showed footage of long lines of voters in major provincial cities such as Isfahan and Shiraz.
Facing growing isolation and threats of Israeli military action over the Islamic Republic’s disputed nuclear programme, the clerical establishment needed a high turnout to display its legitimacy, badly damaged after Ahmadinejad’s re-election.
“A turnout as big as Iran,” was a headline on state television, which predicted a “historic” level of participation. State radio and television have played revolutionary songs in the past days to stir nationalist sentiment before the vote.
The authorities predicted a turnout of more than 65 percent, compared to 57 percent in the 2008 parliamentary vote.
Despite a low-key election campaign in Isfahan, queues of voters formed in the ancient city, where first-time voters checked candidate lists on the banks of the Zayandeh Roud river.
“I’d love to vote. But I am hesitant since young candidates are scarce,” said 18-year-old Khosro Jamali. “I cannot wait to have the blue ink stamped on my finger after voting.”
Khamenei endorsed Ahmadinejad’s re-election, but was soon annoyed when the president tried to expand his power.
In the past months, dozens of Ahmadinejad allies have been detained or dismissed from their posts for being linked to a “deviant current” that his rivals say aims to sideline clerics.
The election for the 290-seat parliament pits the United Front of Principlists, which includes loyalists of Khamenei, against the equally hardline, pro-Ahmadinejad Resistance Front.
“I’m not voting. It’s not a free election,” said a 29-year-old teacher who gave her name as Sara, in the northwestern city of Urumiyeh.
Most Iranians are Shi’ites, with some Sunni Muslims. Five assembly seats are reserved for officially recognised minority sects - Armenian and Assyrian Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians.
“I have not decided yet. I am a bit disappointed over the 2009 vote but as a member of a religious minority I also want to have a voice in parliament,” said Tina Safavian, an Armenian, in the northwestern city of Ardebil.
“I will vote for Ahmadinejad allies. They are humble and simple. They understand our problems,” said street-sweeper Morteza Sedghi, 62, in the southern town of Ilam.
Ahmadinejad, a blacksmith’s son whose modest image scores well with Iran’s poor masses, has support in small towns and villages, where his handouts of petrodollars are appreciated.
The economy was a key issue for many Iranian voters.
“What can parliament do to improve my daily life? Nothing. Therefore, I am not voting,” said retired government employee Nader, 59, who said he lives on a monthly pension of $400.
Ahmadinejad cut state food and fuel subsidies in 2010 and replaced them with direct monthly payments of about $38 per person. Inflation is officially at 21 percent, but politicians and some clerics say the real figure is around 50 percent.
“I’ll vote because I’m worried the government might cut the subsidy cash payment of those who don’t,” said Masumeh, a housewife.
Western sanctions aimed at forcing Iran to shelve its sensitive nuclear work are damaging energy and food imports.
“I have no luxury to vote. I am working around the clock to feed my family, “said a 43-year-old man in the northern city of Rasht, who would not give his name. “Why should I vote for this system, in which I struggle to make ends meet?”
Additional reporting by Mitra Amiri and Hashem Kalantari; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Alistair Lyon