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Iran: Hard-Liners Strike Down Bill To Loosen Election Restrictions

By Charles Recknagel and Azam Gorgin

A key Iranian reformist bill to loosen restrictions on who runs for parliament has been struck down for a second time by a hard-line parliamentary oversight committee. The action this week suggests Iran's hard-liners may try to wrest back control of the parliament from reformists in legislative elections early next year, by making it difficult for liberal candidates to participate.

Prague, 15 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A reformist bill to loosen conservatives' hold over Iran's election process looks ever more doomed to failure after hard-liners struck it down this week for a second time.

The parliamentary bill, originally written at the initiative of President Mohammad Khatami, seeks to limit the ability of Iran's watchdog Guardians Council to vet and bar candidates running for public office. The conservative-dominated council routinely uses its power to screen candidates for vague qualities, such as loyalty to the Islamic Revolution, in order to disqualify liberals from elections.

The watchdog council, which also vets parliamentary bills for conformance to the Islamic Republic's constitution, rejected the bill and two other reformist initiatives on 13 August on the grounds they were unconstitutional and against Islamic law. The other two bills required Iran to adopt United Nations conventions on eliminating torture and ending discrimination against women.

The latest rejection of Khatami's election-reform initiative comes almost a year after he first sent it to parliament. The parliament is now considered likely to resubmit the bill to the council yet again in hopes of reaching some compromise. Khatami has said he does not want the dispute to go to arbitration by another, higher body. That body, the conservative Expediency Council, would have the authority to increase the Guardians Council's powers further if it ruled against the parliament.

Analysts say the new setback for the election-reform bill could be a signal that Iran's hard-liners have made up their minds to use the candidate-screening process to wrest back control of the parliament from reformists in the next legislative election, due in February.

This week's rejection of the bill closely follows moves by the council to set up scores of permanent provincial election-supervision offices around the country to monitor the statements and records of potential candidates. Reformists have called the new offices illegal.

Firuz Guran, a Tehran journalist, told RFE/RL's Radio Farda recently that he expects the next legislative elections to go to the conservatives.

Speaking to Farda correspondent Fereydoon Zarnegar, he said: "I think that the next parliamentary seats will be filled by the right-wing conservatives. If people are willing to go to the polls, they must realize that they have to vote for the candidates chosen by the Guardians Council. The next parliament will pass a piece of legislation or two for the people's welfare, but it will be run by totalitarians."

Other observers say there appears to be little reformists can do to derail any such plans. Sadeq Zibakalam, a professor at Tehran University, said the Islamic Republic's constitution deliberately divides authority over elections between the unelected Guardians Council -- whose members are appointed by the supreme leader -- and the Interior Ministry, which is a branch of the elected government.

He told correspondent Zarnegar the division of powers makes it difficult for reformists to use the executive branch to close the new provincial election-monitoring offices or put other practical limits on the Guardians Council's operations. "Unfortunately, in the Islamic Republic we have parallel institutions where some are linked to the Supreme Leadership [appointed] and some to the Republic [elected]. They often have conflicts since their realm of responsibilities has never been specified and both the Guardians Council and the Ministry of Interior can legally oversee the elections," Zibakalam said.

Iran's conservative camp rejects the reformist charges that the Guardians Council selectively screens out liberal candidates. The conservatives say the reformists' own sweep of the parliamentary elections four years ago proves the screening process is impartial. The council claims to screen out only those candidates who are "antirevolutionary" or have criminal records.

As conservatives and reformists battle over candidate screening, there are increasing signs that the Iranian public is losing faith in elections as a way to bring about change. The most recent elections, the nationwide local and municipal polls in February, saw 28 percent voter turnout, compared to 60 percent in the previous local elections of 1999. The February local elections saw mostly only hard-core conservatives going to the polls, resulting in a severe setback for reformist candidates.

Zibakalam said Iran's conservatives appear to be ready to accept low voter turnouts so long as they win at the polls. "I think the conservatives will be the sole beneficiaries [of the next elections], and will utilize their utmost power to refute the competency of [reformist] candidates," he said. "Undoubtedly, not many people will come to the polls."

He said of 28 million voters who went to the polls in the last legislative election in 2000, "only 14, 15, or 16 million will vote [this time]. The conservatives are fully aware and have accepted this fact and are prepared to pay its international and internal political consequences. Under no circumstance will the conservatives allow the [next] parliament to be filled with reformists and have legislative power out of the right wing's hands."

Khatami publicly warned hard-liners this week that their opposition to reforms is alienating the country's youth and storing up trouble for the future. He said, "Ignoring young people and their demands and misusing religion and Islamic values to oust political rivals from the scene could create big problems for society."

The president, re-elected two years ago on promises to push reform, also acknowledged that he has largely been unable to deliver. He said that "recently it has been difficult for me to speak because...many of my opinions, my beliefs, and my promises which I expressed truthfully and sincerely and were supported by the people have not been fulfilled."

Still, despite the continuing string of setbacks being suffered by the reformist camp, few observers in Iran expect the demands for change to die away -- as many conservatives hope.

Asked if he expected a conservative takeover of parliament to end public pressure for reforms, journalist Guran replied, "Not at all...people have not vested all their hopes [for change] in one or two reformists, but in themselves."