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Iran: Elections Set For Friday

Iranian voters are due to go to the polls Friday for parliamentary elections whose results will play a large role in determining the pace of future reforms. But with voting just days away, it remains unclear how well the rival reformist and conservative camps will do. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports.

Prague, 16 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Iran's reformist camp hopes Friday's voting will witness a repeat of the wave of frustration which brought moderate President Mohammad Khatami to power three years ago.

If so, the reformers could finally seize control of the 290-seat parliament, a body which until now has been dominated by conservatives and used to hinder moves to create a more open society.

But the conservatives are equally confident that they will hold onto parliament with their promise to maintain stability and the values of the Islamic Revolution.

As the parliamentary elections are now just days away, many analysts say it is almost impossible to forecast which camp will win a parliamentary majority.

The reformists can count on widespread public desire -- especially among younger Iranians -- for economic reforms to fight an unemployment rate estimated at 25 percent. Many of the young also want greater personal and press freedom.

But analysts say the reformists' chances at the polls may have been diminished by pre-election screening of candidates. The screening was done by the conservative Guardian Council, which oversees elections and legislation to ensure it conforms to the Islamic Revolution's values. In all, some 650 candidates out of 7,000 were barred from running.

Katerina Dalacoura, who follows Iran closely at the London School of Economics, says the screening makes it difficult to predict how well the reformists will do.

"The difficulty with predicting what is going to happen in these elections is not so much with assessing the popular mood because I think we can take it that it still remains pro-Khatami. The difficulty is with what has actually happened in rooting out anti-conservative candidates and how this will effect the logistics of it ... If they have taken out key figures then that could debilitate the possibility of the reformist movement taking off in these elections."

The reformists' performance also could be hampered by their failure to back a single list of easily identifiable candidates. Under Iran's election law, parties do not field candidates directly but endorse individuals instead. Eighteen centrist and left-wing parties originally formed a coalition -- the Second of Khordad Front-- to work together but in most districts they have been unable to agree on common candidates.

Analysts say that could leave would-be reformist voters foundering on Friday in a sea of candidate names -- many of which are unfamiliar -- and risk diluting their vote to the benefit of conservatives. In Tehran alone some 900 candidates are running for 30 parliamentary seats. Election campaigning, limited to one week ending on Wednesday, has been insufficient for many of the candidates to introduce themselves to voters.

A leading reformist faction is the leftist Islamic Iran Participation Party, whose candidate list is headed by Mohammad-Reza Khatami, the younger brother of President Khatami. Another is the Executives of Construction, a technocrat party formed by associates of former President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. Both parties seek a more open economy but disagree over how far to go in also creating a more open society.

The Participation Party has refused to support Rafsanjani, who is considered to be liberal in his economic views but socially conservative. Instead, Rafsanjani -- who is standing as an independent in Tehran -- has received a ringing endorsement from the main conservative faction, the Association of Combattant Clergy. The association put Rafsanjani at the top of its official list of candidates.

Meanwhile, Rafsanjani -- whom many reformists have considered sympathetic to their cause -- has stepped up a war of words with liberals in recent weeks, confusing moderate voters further over where he and the technocrats endorsing him stand. The moves are important because Rafsanjani, if elected, is believed likely to become the parliament's next speaker, a powerful post which he has held before.

Friday will be a first-round vote in which candidates who gain at least 25 percent of votes will win seats. Those seats undecided in the first-round will be subject to second-round run-off to be held within a month.

Analysts say the results of the election will go a long way to determining the pace of reforms in Iran over the coming years.

During the four years of the previous parliament, conservative deputies have used their majority to block reformist bills and impeach two ministers closely allied with President Khatami. Reformists now hope that a resounding victory in the polls could give them a majority in the legislature and end its ability to impeach members of Khatami's cabinet, freeing it to speed reforms.

But many analysts say that no matter who wins control of the parliament, the victory still will be far from ending the continuing power-struggle between the two camps. Dalacoura:

"The [parliamentary] assembly is important but it is one of many factors in the political balance of power. The judiciary is very important as well, the security forces are very important, the so-called 'bonyads,' the economic trusts and charitable foundations which control a large part of the economy, these are large players as well. So, even though this election is very important we should not exaggerate its importance."

Nevertheless, this week's election in itself represents yet another firm step toward democratization in Iran. It the first in the history of the Islamic Republic to see scores of political groups and associations taking part -- with a total of 111 registered nationwide.

Many of the groups are focused on single issues or local personalities and will disappear again after the elections. But their number represents an ever-increasing contrast with the early days of the Islamic Republic when only a handful of parties loyal to the revolution could dream of sharing power.