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Iran: Reformers Optimistic Ahead Of Ballot

In the run-up to the second round of Iran's parliamentary elections Friday, hardliners have done their best to maintain their previous parliamentary advantage by closing newspapers and intimidating journalists. But RFE/RL's Bill Samii reports reformists supporting President Mohammad Khatami are confident of victory.

Prague, 4 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Iranians go to the polls tomorrow (May 5) for a second round of parliamentary elections. The vote is likely to be decisive in Iran's struggle between reform and stagnation.

In the first round, held February 18, reformists apparently won 148 of parliament's 290 seats. Hardliners took 37 seats, with the remainder going to independents and religious minorities.

The government has never stated precisely how many seats will be contested in this round. But it appears at issue are 66 seats in 52 constituencies where no candidate managed to get more than 25 percent of the vote in the first round. Next year, by-elections are due to be held in 12 constituencies where a hardline supervisory body -- the Guardians Council -- overturned first-round results.

The situation is especially unclear in the capital Tehran. The Guardians Council never announced final results for city's 30 seats. At first, it said reformist candidates took all but one of the seats. But last month, citing voting discrepancies, the Council said the results would be changed -- without specifying what those changes would be.

The controversy over the Tehran seats began with a dispute about whether a leading hardline candidate, former president Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, had won a seat. The Guardians Council originally said Rafsanjani had sufficient support to be the last among the 30 Tehran winners. Later, some reformists who were said to have finished in the top 30 lost places to hardline candidates.

Hardliners have resorted to other means to control voters' choices in the second round, notably suppressing pro-reform publications. In the last two weeks, the conservative press court has closed 15 Iranian journals -- including nine daily newspapers. Two investigative Iranian journalists -- Akbar Ganji and Emadedin Baqi -- now face trial. In March, Said Hajjarian, director of the reformist "Sobh-i Imruz" daily, was the victim of an assassination attempt.

The press closures resulted in demonstrations in Tehran and eight other cities across Iran. Last week, a demonstration in Tehran turned violent.

State broadcasting -- controlled by hardliners -- has played an important role in silencing the pro-reform media. In previous elections -- including the first round in February -- state-controlled media was criticized for bias.

Voter turnout in February's first round was only 69 percent, a relatively poor showing. There is speculation turnout will be even lower in the second round. Low turnout would probably benefit hardline candidates, who can depend on a core of organized and easily mobilized supporters.

The impact of all this maneuvering on the parliament's eventual composition could be significant in that relatively moderate President Mohammad Khatami needs a majority to implement reforms. Khatami has criticized the hardline crackdown on the media, but has done so in his usual indirect manner -- saying only that "no one can hinder the nation's process of reforms."

In general, the reform camp has consistently urged supporters not to react strongly to hardline provocations. The reasoning is that such a reaction could play into the hands of the hardliners.

The reformists remain confident they will maintain the majority in parliament they apparently won in February. The pro-Khatami Islamic Iran Participation Party says that it and other reform groups will control well over 50 percent of the seats when it's all over.