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For Iran's Reformists, Getting To The Polls Is Half The Battle

Iran's self-styled moderate President Hassan Rohani's first term is due to end next year, and this month's parliamentary vote is widely seen as a test of his support ahead of a possible bid for reelection.

Kazem has vowed, via a social network that's not blocked to him and his fellow Iranians, not to vote in this week's elections.

"I won't let anyone use me as a tool," the Tehran-based businessman declared on Instagram. He described the voting as a "farce" aimed at providing legitimacy for the country's clerically dominated establishment and unelected officials.

Kazem says he's only voted once. That was in 1997 for former President Mohammad Khatami, whose attempts at reform were largely foiled by hard-liners and who is still banned from appearing in newspapers or on television or radio.

"I realized later that things will never change under the current system," he tells RFE/RL.

It's a familiar dilemma for a certain swath of Iran's 55 million registered voters: Does voting makes sense in their Islamic republic, where allegations of rigging are rife and candidates are routinely disqualified by vetters from the notoriously hard-line Guardians Council? Naysayers dismiss the elections as "selections," window-dressing for the supreme leader and his chosen allies; yeasayers counter that despite the shortcomings, elections since the country's 1979 revolution have provided opportunities for political change.

The debate has been reignited by scheduled balloting on February 26 for both a new parliament, known as the Majlis, and an Assembly of Experts, the all-male body of mullahs that appoints the supreme leader. The vote pits backers of self-styled moderate President Hassan Rohani against hard-liners opposed to reforms and particularly hostile to any opening up of the country.

In the absence so far of any organized boycott of the vote and despite Kazem's arguments against participation, pro-reform voters are more likely to be following Reza's example.

Reza, a Tehrani who asked us not to use his real name, says he believes it is crucial to vote for the 290-seat parliament and the 88-member Assembly of Experts. He has been encouraging others to cast their ballots for an alliance of reformists and moderate candidates in order to block hard-liners and help "institutionalize the culture of voting" in Iran, where a Western-backed monarch ruled until the revolution that brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and other clerics to power nearly three decades ago.

While Reza says he recognizes that Iran's elections fall short of international norms for free and fair votes, he argues that they allow "a minimum of competition within the system," which he believes is sufficient for gradual reforms to take place and make Iran more democratic.

"I believe that elections will in the long run -- despite all the limitations -- result in the imposing of people's will on the establishment through members of the establishment," Reza tells RFE/RL.

Test For Rohani

Reformists have described the parliamentary elections as a "second step" after the 2013 victory by Rohani, whose popularity has risen since a nuclear accord was reached last year with world powers to limit Iran's disputed nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Rohani's first term is due to end next year, and this month's vote is widely seen as a test of his support ahead of a possible bid for reelection.

The Guardians Council has disqualified half of the 12,000 or so applicants for the legislature, many of them reformists whose loyalty was in question and including prominent figures, leaving around 6,200 candidates for the 290-seat Majlis. A Rohani ally complained that just 33 of 3,000 reformists made the cut.

But Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has urged Iranians, including "those who do not accept the ruling system," to vote in large numbers "for the sake of the country's [international] standing." He has said a high turnout would deliver a message to the West, and he has urged people to "act contrary to what enemies want."

Those reformists urging like-minded voters to go to the polls argue that boycotts in the past have given the upper hand to hard-core conservatives, whose supporters turn out in large numbers and are thought to be especially loyal. They cite the victory of Mahmud Ahmadinejad in the presidential election of 2005 and the dominance of the conservatives and hard-liners in parliament since 2004, when many reformists boycotted the polls in a reaction to a ban on many of their candidates.

Mobilizing Efforts

A former president and onetime head of the Assembly of Experts who allied himself with the opposition following the disputed election of 2009, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, was quoted by the official IRNA news agency this week as urging Iranians to "deliver an ultimatum to hard-liners" at the polls despite their disappointment at "the behavior of some individuals in some organizations." He criticized the vetting process and warned that such measures "create splits and discords between people" 37 years after Iran's revolution.

Reformists say a high turnout by the opposition could shake the rule of hard-liners in parliament, where they have repeatedly challenged Rohani and his cabinet ministers over their foreign policy outreach and less restrictive social and cultural policies.

"Not voting will not block the hard-liners, it will just make it easier for them to regain control of the parliament," a Rohani supporter wrote on social media. "The only viable option is to do all we can to block them."

Some observers believe moderate gains in parliament could strengthen Rohani and allow him to bring modest social changes and push his economic agenda forward following last month's lifting of the international sanctions that had been crippling the Iranian economy.

The disqualification process has left less room for maneuver in races for the Assembly of Experts, where some observers say the 76-year-old Khamenei is determined to ensure that his loyalists dominate the body. Just 161 of 800 or so would-be candidates have been approved to run for assembly seats.

Blocking Strategy

To many Iranians, the Assembly of Experts is an obscure rubberstamp body with elderly members who are disconnected from society. Tasked under the constitution with monitoring the performance of the supreme leader, it is not known to have ever challenged or criticized Khamenei. But the assembly would play the primary role in determining a successor if Khamenei -- whose health remains a question -- should die or become incapacitated in the next eight years.

Rafsanjani joined former reformist President Khatami this month in urging voters to choose from a "list of hope" of reformist-backed candidates in the elections -- in the case of the Assembly of Experts headlined by Rohani and Rafsanjani. The call included a rare public appearance for Khatami, who is still subject to an official media ban -- in the form of a YouTube and Telegram video in which the 72-year-old theologian and two-time president cited Rohani's election win in 2013 as a prelude to a "second step."

WATCH: Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami Urges People To Vote For Reform (in Persian, no subtitles)

Some reformists have responded to the list by taking to social media themselves to encourage participation. They argue that voting for the 16 "list of hope" candidates can prevent the election to the Assembly of Experts of three perceived ultra-hard-liners and Khamenei loyalists in particular: Guardians Council Chairman Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, Assembly of Experts Chairman Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, and Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi.

"Please vote for all the names on this list. Let's kick out Jannati from the Assembly of Experts forever. The next election for the assembly is in eight years, and by then Jannati will hopefully not be alive," a Facebook user in Ahwaz wrote.

Some potential voters this week still appeared to be undecided as to whether to cast their ballots or not.

"I've never voted. But sometimes I tell myself that if I and many others like me had participated in elections, for example in 2005 when Ahmadinejad came to power, then maybe Iran would have been a better place," one woman wrote in a debate on social media about the February 26 voting.

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on 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.