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Iran: Khatami Set To Win Iran Vote, But Size Of Mandate Uncertain

Iran's presidential election, to be held on 8 June, pits incumbent Mohammad Khatami against nine lesser-known rivals. Khatami, a moderate, is expected to easily beat his mostly conservative challengers. But it remains to be seen whether voters will again turn out for him in overwhelming numbers, as they did in 1997. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports that Khatami's first bid for office generated enormous excitement and hope that he could deliver on promises of reform. But enthusiasm has dwindled, as conservatives in recent months have blocked most of his supporters' initiatives for change.

Prague, 6 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Iranians go to the polls on 8 June for a presidential election that most observers feel has already been decided.

In the vote, Mohammad Khatami is seeking a second four-year term against nine challengers who, individually, are expected to gain little voter support. The challengers include conservative former ministers, an academic, a lawyer, a doctor, and an admiral -- all of whom are far lesser-known than the incumbent.

Polls are to open around 0900 local time (0630 Prague time) and close some nine hours later. In past elections, the hours have usually been extended to accommodate late voters. Final results are expected late Saturday.

The three-week presidential campaign has seen Khatami and his rivals campaigning mostly on state television and radio, which has given all the contenders equal air time of 13 hours each.

The president has called on voters who want reform to again support him in what he has repeatedly said is a long and hard struggle to change the Islamic Republic from within the system. The goal, he has said, remains the same as it was when he first ran for the presidency in 1997 -- to build a more open society in which citizens can have a greater political voice and more social freedoms.

By contrast, most of Khatami's challengers have paid little attention to the issue of political and social reforms, and concentrated instead on what they see as the more pressing issue of Iran's struggling economy. Several of the candidates have criticized Khatami's first-term government for failing to bring down double-digit inflation and unemployment. Official government estimates put unemployment at 15 percent, but most independent analysts believe the true figure is closer to 25 percent.

Among Khatami's challengers, the two strongest are both conservatives. The first is Ahmad Tavakoli, a former labor minister who also has served as a Revolutionary prosecutor. He has promised that he would boost the economy by rooting out widespread corruption.

Running close behind Tavakoli is the country's current defense minister, Admiral Ali Shamkhani. As a member of the cabinet, he calls Khatami his "best friend," but has been withering in his indictment of the president's managerial skills. Shamkhani also says most of Iran's economic problems are due to factional strife, a code word conservatives use for reformists' attempts to change the system.

With none of Khatami's rivals expected to come even close to gaining the presidency, most observers say the real test Friday will be to see how large a mandate Khatami can win from voters for his second term in office.

Reformists hope for a large turnout for the incumbent to give him the same sweeping mandate for change he won in 1997. At that time, excitement over his candidacy helped bring out 76 percent of Iran's eligible voters. Of the 29 million votes cast, Khatami won 20 million.

This time, as a wave of Iran's youth comes of voting age, the electorate has grown to a total of 42 million. But observers say the excitement over the presidential election is less than it was in 1997, and there is no certainty that voters will again turn out in such high numbers.

Liberals have been shaken by the conservatives' overturning of many of Khatami's earlier reforms, including his unfettering of the press. In the past year, some 50 reformist publications have been shut down and many journalists and some leading reformers jailed.

RFE/RL's Persian Service correspondent Jamshid Zand has been telephoning election observers and campaign workers in Iran's provincial capitals for the past week to keep abreast of the voters' mood across the country.

Ja'afar Katani is helping organize support for President Khatami in the northwestern city of Mahabad. He told RFE/RL he expects the incumbent to gain some 60 percent of the vote there:

"Our slogan is 'Mahabad, Reforms, Khatami.' We do have some demands [for more social and political reforms] but people are seriously participating -- they have welcomed the elections. Students and women -- and especially farmers, as well -- have shown very high support for Mr. Khatami. We had a poll taken by the [pro-Khatami] Islamic Iran Participation Front and the analysis showed around 80 percent will be participating, and more than 60 percent will be voting for Khatami."

In 1997, Khatami won some 69 percent of the vote nationwide.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei this week called for a large voter turnout on 8 June, saying strong participation would demonstrate the legitimacy of the Islamic system.

Although campaigning has been mostly quiet, there have been scattered reports of violence in some cities where hard-liners have attacked reformists.

Payman Pakmehr, a journalist in Tabriz, told RFE/RL that hard-liners sought to abduct several students who have been active in planning Khatami's campaign in the city:

"At night, some Tabriz Open University students who were leaving a meeting at another student's house were confronted by two groups of thugs with two cars who ordered them to get into the cars. The students resisted and the assailants beat them up and told them: 'We are intelligence agents. It's our duty to take you from here.' Some local merchants contacted the police but before the police came the students sustained head injuries and were badly beaten up. But they didn't get into those cars with the thugs."

Khatami has sought to bring out the vote by appearing at several election rallies in recent days, including one for youthful first-time voters in Tehran over the weekend. He told a cheering crowd of some 10,000 youths -- who at 15 years and over are eligible to vote -- that they must continue to support reforms despite setbacks over the last four years. He said that "high goals require hard work. [You] must not be fatigued by the obstacles."

Whether that rallying call will be sufficient to bring out supporters in overwhelming numbers will be decided Friday in what is certain to be one of the most significant rounds in the continuing battle between Iran's reformist and conservative camps.

A large voter mandate for Khatami will reinvigorate reformists who are now reeling from press closures and arrests. But any weakening of Khatami's popular mandate compared to four years ago is only likely to encourage conservatives to strengthen their crackdown in the months ahead.