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Critics Insist Iran's Presidential Vote Free, Fair Only On The Surface

A supporter of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad waves the national flag in Tehran at a rally ahead of the vote.
A supporter of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad waves the national flag in Tehran at a rally ahead of the vote.
It looks like an election that could easily be taking place in the West, with all the trappings.

There are four candidates from different factions, with different viewpoints.

Incumbent President Mahmud Ahmadinejad is being challenged by fellow conservative Mohsen Rezai and two reformist candidates, former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Musavi and former parliament speaker Mehdi Karrubi.

The candidates have participated in televised election debates, slung mud, and vehemently defended their campaign platforms.

And they've campaigned on the Internet and posted video clips.

In rallies across the country, the candidates' ardent supporters have taken to the streets, showing their colors, chanting, dancing, and exchanging slogans.

But detractors insist that's only on the surface.

Not A Real Choice

In practice, they note, the Iranian presidential race does not meet the "free and fair" standards on which elections are judged in Western countries.

The main reason is the screening process that prevents Iranians from having a real choice of candidates.

Supporters of reformist candidate Mir Hossein Musavi rally on Freedom Square in Tehran.
Their choice is limited to present or former members of the Iranian establishment. Women are excluded, as are any candidates who are considered by Iran's clerics-cum-vetters to be unfaithful to Islamic or revolutionary values.

In the course of the election process, some 475 individuals -- including women and two former legislators who have been critical of the establishment in the past -- registered to run in the race. But only four were ultimately approved by the powerful Guardians Council.

The council, a panel of six senior clerics and six Islamic jurists who are not above factional interests, is in charge of approving the credentials of all of those who are standing for office.

The constitutional right of "approbatory supervision" given to the hard-line body deprives Iranians of choosing freely and also prevents some from running for office.

'Deprived' Of Rights

Presidential candidate and reformist cleric Karrubi claimed last week that the Guardians Council had also disqualified people with legitimate revolutionary credentials.

"It deprives so many people of their basic rights, including the wife of [a martyr] who was deprived from participating in the vote, and dozens of others," Karrubi said.

But that's not all.

Rights groups say Iran's elections are often held in an atmosphere of increased pressure on activists and critics. Amnesty International reports that in the months and weeks leading up to the current election, there has been a wave of arbitrary arrests and harassment particularly targeting minorities, trade unionists, and women's rights activists.

According to the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, election coverage on state media has not been balanced and 15 journalists were threatened and summoned for criticizing Ahmadinejad.

A tally by the group shows that candidates running against Ahmadinejad had less than two hours to air their views on national radio and television, while the president had 10 times that amount.

In the televised debates, held in Iran for the first time, each candidate was given 40 minutes. But just before the official campaign period ended early on June 11, Ahmadinejad got an extra 45 minutes to respond as he saw fit to accusations leveled against him.

'Most Democratic Event'

Despite the hurdles for serious challengers, Rasool Nafisi, a Washington-based Iran expert and university professor, tells RFE/RL that the holding of televised debates is "the most democratic event" that has happened in an Iranian election during the past 30 years.

"Because of its impact and because it created a dialogue between the nation and the government and also regarding the issue of transparency -- these are all principles of democracy," Nafisi says, "so it is very, very important and effective."

A woman walks past campaign posters in Tehran.
In the debates, Ahmadinejad's rivals accused him of being a "liar," while he accused high-ranking officials in the Islamic republic of corruption. Millions of Iranians were watching.

Nafisi notes that even though some red lines were crossed in the debates, the candidates did not touch on some of the most sensitive issues.

"For example, none of them said a word about the unlimited power of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khameni," Nafisi says. "It's the most serious problem facing Iran."

Nafisi adds that Iran's election is a reflection of the country's complex ruling system in which Khamenei has the last word, but at the same time there is a president with some power and a parliament.

"[Iran's election] is being held within a system that is a mix of different systems," Nafisi says. "Part of it is like the former Soviet regime; one part of is similar to the rule of [Iraqi dictator] Saddam Hussein; one part is similar to the government in Pakistan; part of it has some elements of democracy."

As Iranians go to the polls on June 12 , there is concern over the possibility of interference by the Revolutionary Guards in favor of Ahmadinejad. On June 10, the Guards' political chief, Yadollah Javani, warned that authorities would crush any attempt at a "velvet revolution" inspired by the huge rallies and street parties calling for more freedoms.

Interference In Past Elections

There is also concern over vote manipulation and election fraud.

"The most important concern is that the bodies officially in charge of holding the election and monitoring it [the Interior Ministry and Guardian Council] are all from the conservative camp," Saeed Razavi Faghih, a member of Karrubi's committee for the safeguarding of votes, told RFE/RL's Radio Farda. "There is also concern over the record of these bodies for having interfered in past elections. Also, we have witnessed some moves that indicate that they want to pave the way so that they can influence the election result with a more open hand."

Reformists have warned that the number of difficult-to-monitor mobile stations has increased by 10 percent and that while 59.6 million ballots were printed for the vote, the Interior Ministry has announced the number of printed ballots as 57 million.

A few days before the election, reformist websites posted a letter by a group of Interior Ministry employees who expressed concern that the ministry was planning to intervene in the election. They said an ayatollah has issued a fatwa that says manipulating the votes in favor of Ahmadinejad is permissible.

Both reformist candidates in the race, Musavi and Karrubi, have expressed concern about vote manipulation.

The Guardians Council has announced that it will safeguard the votes.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.

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