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Iran: Students Wonder Whether They Should Vote

Presidential Candidate Mustafa Moin is considered a reformer As candidates for Iran's 17 June presidential election begin campaigning, some student activists are advocating an election boycott. This is not an irrelevant matter -- some two-thirds of Iran's population is under the age of 30 (46 million out of a total population of 69 million) and the voting age is 15. Plus, eight years ago young Iranians helped a relatively liberal dark horse win a landslide victory.

Although a boycott could show disaffection with the country's deeply flawed political system, it is unlikely to have any real effect.

The students have not been bashful. In mid-May students at several universities staged sit-ins to show their unhappiness with the country's stifling political climate. Leading members of the Office for Strengthening Unity, the country's most well-known student organization, met in Tehran on 19 May, "Eqbal" reported on 21 May. During this meeting they expressed unhappiness with the restrictions placed on them. They also suspended the branch from Saduqi University in Yazd because it has expressed support for the candidacy of Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. The Office for Strengthening Unity leadership noted that this stance contradicts its ban on political involvement.
Whether or not they boycott the election, opponents of the current set-up, including the students, face a no-win situation.

Soon thereafter, 35 university student associations issued a statement expressing concern about the course of political developments in the country. Their statement said, according to the reformist "Aftab-e Yazd" newspaper on 23 May, that students are questioning the effectiveness of elections given the authoritarian trend in the country. They warned of a social explosion and delays in the democratization of the country. They warned the hard-line political figures that sooner or later the people will realize that they have a right to choose and elect candidates freely. The students wrote that they see it as their duty to resist the country's authoritarians.

The students did not have to wait long to fulfill what they see as their duty. They spoke out after the Guardians Council, an unelected body that vets prospective candidates for elected office, rejected the eligibility of all but six out of 1,014 applicants for the presidential race. The students were particularly unhappy with the rejection of the reformist Mustafa Moin, who had served as Science, Research, and Technology Minister (effectively, the higher education minister) in President Mohammad Khatami's cabinet. At a 23 May protest meeting speakers asked how a man who served in three presidential cabinets and also served in the legislature could be deemed ineligible for the presidency. The next day, some 300 students staged a brief march, until police herded them back on campus. Coincidentally, the Guardians Council reinstated Moin's candidacy.

Abdullah Momeni, a representative of the Office for Strengthening Unity, told Radio Farda that many students have a negative view of the election because of the restrictions connected with the country's legal system. Momeni said the Guardians Council's rejection of presidential candidates is driving the country into crisis. Momeni went on to say that although the students intend to boycott the election it does not mean they are indifferent to the rejected candidates. Meanwhile, 1,500 people participated in a sit-in at Hamedan University.

At the medical university in Shahr-i Kurd, furthermore, there were several days of protests and students clashed with security personnel. The students are objecting to the rejection of nearly all the presidential candidates. Furthermore, activist Arsh Kuhi told Radio Farda on 27 May, the students are objecting to the on-campus presence of security personnel, which is illegal. Kuhi noted that the students at Shahr-i Kurd are backed by organizations at the country's other medical universities, as well as the Office for Strengthening Unity.

An unaffiliated student organization called the Republic Students of Yazd staged a sit-in to protest the university administration's restriction against the group, "Eqbal" reported on 29 May. The security forces broke up the protest.

This student activism is encouraging, but the numbers are not. The total university student population is 1.2 million, which seems like a small number of people when the total population is around 69 million. Other factors, such as tactical differences, state repression, and the resulting lack of leadership, also limit the students' potential.

Students are divided on the political role they should play. The Office for Strengthening Unity (Daftar-e Tahkim-e Vahdat) is divided into two wings. The majority "Allameh" faction wants to withdraw from the political system and generally advocates an election boycott, whereas the minority "Shiraz" faction generally favors participation and operating within the current political framework. Another student organization, known as the Tabarzadi Group for its founder, the oft-imprisoned Heshmatollah Tabarzadi, advocates a more radical approach to politics. In the 1980s, furthermore, the regime created the University Jihad and the Student Basij, and 1998 legislation created a Basij unit in every university.

State repression also has dampened young people's political ardor. For example, police arrested some 4,000 people after June 2003 demonstrations over the possibility of paying tuition. Individuals associated with July 1999 demonstrations are still in jail. An ominous phenomenon that has emerged in the last few years is the detention of activists by unaccountable security agencies at undisclosed locations.

A few brave students continue to come forward, occasionally to lead but at least to show solidarity. The overall lack of forceful and consistent leadership, nevertheless, hinders their ability to effectively express themselves or to oppose the system. Moreover, the Office for Strengthening Unity, specifically, and young voters, generally, are disappointed by the result of the elections. The individuals they voted for -- President Mohammad Khatami in 1997 and 2001, and reformist legislators in 2000 -- could not accomplish anything substantive because their efforts were countered by unelected but powerful institutions and individuals.

Under these circumstances, the student activists' tactical approach has changed. By early 2000 they had adopted the policy of "active calm" (aramesh-e faal), in order to avoid a violent crackdown by the security forces and their vigilante allies. By March 2005 there were calls for a boycott of the presidential election from a wing of the Office for Strengthening Unity. In early May, more than 500 critics and dissidents signed a letter saying they will not vote in the June polls. These calls have picked up steam, and at least one of the mainstream political parties, the Islamic Iran Participation Front, threatened to boycott the election if its preferred candidate, Mustafa Moin, was not allowed to run.

Most of the candidates have, at one time or another, met with student groups in an effort to gain their support. Moin is the only candidate who counts on student support, particularly from the majority faction of the Office for Strengthening Unity, according to an analysis in the 16 May "Etemad." The minority faction of the student organization tends to back another candidate, Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi. It is noteworthy that after his candidacy was reinstated, Moin said the Guardians Council actions caused unhappiness in the country, "especially among the students," "Eqbal" reported on 25 May.

Moin will have to do more to earn the students' support. Hadi Kahalzadeh, a member of the central council of an organization that represents former Office for Strengthening Unity members, said on 1 June: "We are waiting for Moin to declare his sensitivities about the violation of human rights and democracy in a more tangible way, because merely issuing a statement cannot convey his sensitivities to society," ILNA reported. Kahalzadeh denied that his organization backs Moin and said, "We still believe in not taking part in the elections."

Whether or not they boycott the election, opponents of the current set-up, including the students, face a no-win situation. The victory of a hard-line candidate -- and this includes front-runner and former two-time President Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani -- is almost certain if most Iranians do not vote, because the hard-liners have well-mobilized constituencies. In the absence of neutral election observers, furthermore, the regime can manipulate the figures to show a high turnout. The regime will describe a large turnout as popular support and a sign of its legitimacy. In the unlikely chance that a pro-reform candidate is elected, his ability to implement meaningful changes is sharply curtailed.