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Iran: Guardians Council Disputes Voter Turnout

In the wake of the controversial 20 February parliamentary elections in Iran, a dispute is simmering over voter turnout. The Interior Ministry says 51 percent of eligible voters participated in the elections. But the hard-line Guardians Council says the figure is closer to 60 percent. The council blames the pro-reform ministry for having done "everything possible" to dissuade Iranians from participating in the ballot, in which more than 2,000 reformist candidates were barred from running.

Prague, 23 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Final results have yet to be released for Iran's parliamentary elections. But conservatives are already claiming a parliamentary majority.

That outcome is no surprise for Iran's reformists. Ever since the hard-line Guardians Council barred more than 2,000 mainly opposition candidates from the race, reformists have said the result of the contest was a foregone conclusion.

Today, reformists like Rassoul Mehrparvar, a deputy who was among those barred from the vote, described the elections as a "historical fiasco" in which the Iranian people had no free choices."Victory in a competition without rivals is not epic but a historical fiasco," Mehrparvar said.

Mehrparvar also warned against a conservative crackdown following the closure of two main reformist dailies that were shut down just days before the elections.

"Of course, this is only a start. We have to wait and see what they will do next. I hope they will not start to arrest people and revive the killing [of intellectuals] and other tragic events," Mehrparvar said.

The conservatives' win has been tempered by the lowest voter turnout in the 25-year-history of the Islamic Republic.

According to the Interior Ministry -- which is controlled by allies of reformist President Mohammad Khatami -- just over half of Iran's 46 million eligible voters participated in the elections.

That marks a sizable drop from the 2000 vote, which had a 67 percent turnout.

It also marks a drop from what the Guardians Council says was last week's true turnout, of about 60 percent. The website of the hard-line oversight body accuses the Interior Ministry of "playing with statistics."

The outcome of the vote appears to favor the conservatives regardless. They appear to have won a clear majority with 149 of the 290 seats in parliament.

But turnout is still a key issue. Conservatives had hoped high voter participation would legitimize their victory. Reformists, meanwhile, boycotted the elections and hoped many Iranians would follow suit as a way of discrediting the vote.

Moreover, the Interior Ministry figures show that participation dipped as low as 30 percent in the capital Tehran as well as other large cities like Isfahan and Shiraz.

Analysts say this shows a sharp disaffection among Iran's urban populations for the country's political system.

"I hope they will not start to arrest people and revive the killing of intellectuals and other tragic events."
Reza Taghizadeh is a lecturer at the University of Glasgow and an Iranian affairs analyst. He says the election is a defeat for the Iranian establishment as a whole.

"It means that the students and the younger people decided not to be either intimidated or encouraged to vote, and turned their backs to the system as a whole. In smaller cities, there was a higher percentage of people taking part in the elections. It doesn't mean that the high number of participants in smaller cities is a sign of supporting the system or being satisfied with the status quo. People are generally disenchanted and they have proved that they have turned their back to both the right-wing establishment, as they have done before, and the newcomers, who had the chance for seven years to deliver what people expected them to, and failed," Taghizadeh said.

Taghizadeh adds that the election results are a major blow to President Khatami, who will now be even more isolated within Iran's political scene.

Most of Iran's key institutions -- such as the judiciary, the armed forces, and the Guardians Council -- are in the hands of conservatives. Until last week’s ballot, the parliament had been one of the last reformist strongholds.

Analysts say they fear this means the end of the reforms supported by Khatami and his allies. A top conservative commentator, Amir Mohebian, today told the Reuters news agency that in the future, the impetus for reforms will fall to a new breed of moderate and centrist conservatives.
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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.