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Iran: Conservatives Likely To Regain Majority In Parliamentary Elections

Iran holds nationwide elections tomorrow for a new parliament. But the vote is being held amidst the worst political crisis in the country since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. More than 2,000 reformist and moderate candidates have been barred from standing for office by the powerful Guardians Council. Analysts predict low voter turnout, the conservatives regaining control of parliament, and the reform movement being relegated to a weak opposition.

Prague, 19 February 2004 (RFE/RL ) -- Some 46 million Iranian men and women are eligible to vote in tomorrow's parliamentary elections, but analysts say frustration and disillusionment with the government -- and the mass disqualification of reformist candidates -- will likely result in very low voter turnout.

Ali is a 24-year-old student in Tehran, the capital. He tells RFE/RL that he does not intend to participate in the elections: "I don't think my vote will make any difference. This year, most of the reformist candidates have been disqualified, but even when they had the majority in the parliament, all their bills were rejected by the Guardians Council. [As long as] the Guardians Council is in power, elections are useless."

Some 5,000 candidates will be contesting almost 300 seats in more than 200 constituencies. More than 2,000 pro-reform candidates -- including about 80 incumbent deputies -- have been barred from running after the conservative Guardians Council rejected their credentials. The Guardians Council is an unelected 12-member body of clerics and Islamic jurists with broad powers to oversee parliament.

"I think we could say that the conservatives, the right, will have a tremendous majority in the next parliament."
More than 800 candidates have withdrawn from the race in protest. Reformists accuse conservatives of trying to stage a bloodless coup in order to regain control over parliament.

Earlier this week, in an unprecedented move, reformist lawmakers -- in an open letter -- asked Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to explain his role in the disqualifications. Today, two of Iran's main pro-reform dailies -- "Shargh" and "Yase No" -- were shut down after they published the letter.

The French media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders protested the move today. The group says the closures will prevent the country's reformist media from commenting on the elections, for which the authorities have also rejected the presence of international observers.

Khamenei has called for massive voter participation that would be what he called a "slap in the face of Iran's enemies. "Despite the disqualifications, President Mohammad Khatami -- himself a reformist -- is also calling on people to vote, warning that low turnout could mean a minority gaining control over the country. Mehdi Mahdaviazad, a journalist in Tehran, told Radio Farda that there is widespread indifference to the elections among ordinary Iranians:

"In fact, we don't see any enthusiasm, despite all the official and nonofficial campaigns. There isn't any excitement, except for some [small] cities where there are tribal and ethnic rivalries. In big cities, the atmosphere is stagnant, and you can see a lack of motivation among the citizens."

Mahdaviazad says the latest predictions indicate nationwide turnout will be around 44 percent -- far below the 65 percent of eligible voters who went to the polls in Iran's last parliamentary elections in 2000, when reformists gained the majority.

Candidates must win 25 percent of the vote to prevent a second round. Sadegh Zibakalam, a professor of political science at Tehran University, expects a higher turnout -- perhaps around 55 percent. But he notes the degree of participation will vary in different parts of the country: "In Tehran and the main cities, I would say the turnout would be 20 percent, maximum 30 percent. That is to say, anything up to two-thirds of the eligible people would actually boycott the elections. In small cities and other constituencies, the turnout would be higher because in Tehran and main cities, the political issue will determine whether or not people will take part in the election. However, in small towns and cities, regional rivalries, families and all sorts of other factors are just as important in bringing out the people to vote. So in those places, anything up to 70 percent, and even 75 percent of the people, would bother to turn out."

The reformists are in favor of bringing about more political and social freedoms in society. In the last four years, reformist deputies approved several bills promoting human rights, but almost all of them were rejected by the Guardians Council as being un-Islamic. The conservatives want the country to be run according to strict Islamic laws.

Iran's main reformist party, the Participation Front, calls the election illegal and says it will not take part. The Participation Front is headed by the younger brother of President Khatami, Mohammad Reza Khatami, who is among the blacklisted candidates.

The Office to Foster Unity, the main pro-reform student group, is also calling for an election boycott. And more than 100 Iranian journalists said in a letter published on 18 February that they also will not vote in the polls, which they consider "neither free nor legal."

The Coalition for Iran, the only reformist group contesting the election, is led by President Khatami's own party, the Militant Clerics Association. But it has admitted it has no chance of retaining the majority in parliament.

One of the main conservative groups contesting the vote is the Executives of Construction, which won a majority of seats in Tehran's city council elections last year.

Zibakalam predicts the conservatives will regain the majority in Iran's next parliament: "I think what will happen on Friday is that in large cities, such as Tehran and other places, most of the people, most of that 20 percent, up to 30 percent who would bother to vote would actually vote for the conservative candidates. So I think we could say that the conservatives, the right, will have a tremendous majority in the next [parliament]. So, the reformists would, more or less, their status would be reduced to just an opposition, rather than a movement which is in government."

He adds: "I think the struggle for reforms will be fought between the more hard-line conservatives on the one hand, and the less hard-line or the more moderate, the more pragmatic and the more reformist-minded conservatives. The main battle in the next Iranian political horizon would be fought between different currents within the conservative camp. In that sense, the reformists could actually support the more pragmatic and the more moderate conservatives."

Final results are not expected to be announced until several days after the voting.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.