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Iran: Campaign Slow To Generate Voter Enthusiasm

Iran's presidential campaign is in its penultimate week, with posters hung in major cities and candidates giving speeches on radio and television. But observers in Iran say that so far, the election has failed to generate widespread excitement. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports that could mean incumbent Mohammad Khatami will easily win the 8 June poll, but still have difficulty garnering the sweeping mandate he enjoyed four years ago.

Prague, 30 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Iranian President Mohammad Khatami this week held the only scheduled mass rally of his re-election campaign as he spoke at an outdoor Tehran stadium to more than 30,000 people.

Khatami drew an enthusiastic response as he called for reforms in all areas of Iran's public life -- political, economic, and social. Those were the same calls which galvanized Iranians to turn out in overwhelming numbers four years ago to sweep him into office.

Supporters at the 28 May night rally chanted "two plus 18 equals 20." The slogan was meant to suggest that if Khatami can follow his first election -- held on the second of Khordad, by the Iranian calendar -- with a new victory next week on the 18th of Khordad, he will achieve a perfect mark of 20, the highest grade given in the Iran's school system.

If Khatami appeared to electrify his supporters on 28 May, the event stood out primarily as a rare moment of excitement in what otherwise has been a largely invisible Iranian presidential race during the past two weeks.

The campaigning by Khatami -- who is considered certain to win on 8 June -- and his nine lesser-known rivals has been almost entirely conducted on state radio and television. These outlets have given all candidates equal time of up to 13 hours to reach voters, but many speeches are reported to be broadcast too late in the day to draw wide audiences. The profusion of candidates has also complicated the ability of voters to hear speeches by their favorites.

Observers say the restrained nature of the campaigning may make it difficult for Khatami to again win the kind of sweeping mandate that propelled him into office in 1997, when election fever brought out 76 percent of Iran's eligible voters. Of the 29 million votes cast then, Khatami won 20 million.

Khatami's supporters hope that if Iranians again turn out in large numbers for the president, he can use his second term to push ahead on reforms despite a conservative backlash. During recent months, hard-liners have reversed many of Khatami's initiatives, including those seeking a freer press.

To try to gauge if Khatami can gain a sweeping second mandate, RFE/RL's Persian Service has spoken to journalists and other observers in Iran to ask them to characterize the mood of the voters.

Persian Service correspondent Siyavosh Ardalan recently spoke with Fariborz Gharib, a journalist in Tehran, who said that so far there is little excitement in the capital over the election.

"There is a stagnant feeling in the society. Along with the campaign posters there is also written here and there, in black and red ink: "Participation in the Elections -- No!"

It is uncertain who is behind such graffiti, but popular speculation focuses on at least three possibilities. One is that the words are written by hard-liners hoping to reduce Khatami's mandate. A second is that the graffiti reflect disappointment among former Khatami supporters. And a third possibility is they come from people opposed to the government in general.

Observers say that in other major cities the current presidential election is also generating noticeably less enthusiasm than four years ago.

Persian Service correspondent Jamshid Zand spoke yesterday with Mohammad Sadegh Taheri, a journalist in the south-central city of Kerman about campaigning there.

Taheri says he expects Khatami to do well in Kerman because the government has moved strongly over the last year to deal with two of the most pressing local concerns: violence and hostage-taking associated with the drug trade from nearby Afghanistan. He says that unemployment -- though still, in his view, "sizeable" -- is lower in Kerman than in other cities. Iran is widely thought to have a 25 percent unemployment rate nationwide.

But Taheri says he expects less than a 50 percent voter turnout in next week's election.

"The number of eligible voters in the whole country is 43 million, and in Kerman about 800,000. Participation in this election, in my opinion and from my observation of the current situation, will be less than 50 percent."

Iran's liveliest forum for public debate -- the liberal press -- has been hard-hit by a succession of newspaper and magazine closures ordered by the hard-line Judiciary during the past year. The Judiciary has banned almost 50 reformist publications that received licenses under Khatami's early efforts to open the press. Hard-line courts have also jailed scores of pro-reform journalists and intellectuals.

Still, news of the presidential race appears daily in the press, even though it is largely one-sided because of the conservatives' control of almost all publications. A recent article in the conservative daily "Resalat" quoted a hard-line cleric and a reformist deputy from Tehran, who both neatly summed up their sides' position in the current face-off.

Ayatollah Makarem-Shirazi sought to dampen public interest in the election by charging that voters who support reform are only seeking to pursue political agendas and personal gains.

At the same time, parliamentarian Mohsen Armin sought to diminish in advance any advantage conservatives might try to gain from Khatami's bringing out fewer voters next week than he did in his first presidential race.

Armin said it is natural for a second-term president to win fewer votes. "Fewer votes, despite some other parties' points of view," he said, "is not a rejection of reforms."