Iran voters register protest on economy: Low poll turn-out sends warning to Rafsanjani

PRESIDENT Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was duly re-elected for a second four-year term on Friday, but the larger than expected protest vote, and the low turnout, were sharp reminders to him of the popular disenchantment with the government's economic mismanagement.

He won 63.1 per cent of the vote in a four-way contest, but his triumph was incomplete. According to the official count released by the Interior Ministry, only 56 per cent of the 29 million electorate voted, despite the appeal of the country's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that they had a religious duty to do so. Some 1.5 per cent cast blank ballots. Less than half the population voted for President Rafsanjani. By contrast in 1989, he won 94.5 per cent on a turnout of 70 per cent.

This time, some 24 per cent voted for the second candidate, the former labour minister Ahmad Tavakkoli. A conservative close to the bazaar, who supported the government policy in general of economic privatisation and liberalisaton - he wanted the process accelerated - he railed against official corruption at all levels, social injustice and economic mismanagement. This message struck a chord. In one province, Kurdistan, he actually won more votes than the incumbent. 'The election shows the population is unhappy,' he told Tehran radio.

Although the hardliners might take succour from Mr Rafsanjani's less than overwhelming success, they themselves were routed in parliamentary elections last year. And for the time being, no alternative policies have been aired. Furthermore the presidential election was in no sense a plebiscite on the Islamic Republic itself. Only candidates who could satisfy the clerical Council of Guardians that they were suitable and true sons of the Islamic revolution were allowed to stand - 124 out of 128 were rejected.

The President, the most pragmatic political figure in Iran, has four more years to put the economy on a sounder footing. Throughout the eight-year war with Iraq, the government managed to pay its bills, and avoid debt. It did however promise an improved standard of living once the war ended. After the ceasefire, the economic liberalisation programme was initiated, but it was so uncontrolled that the country has run up a sizeable foreign debt of up to pounds 13.25bn. The riyal has become a convertible currency, and its value has plummeted on exchanges to 1,675 against the dollar. The shops are full of imported goods but few can afford them.

The day after the elections, the government announced overnight price rises. Vegetable oil rose from 7,000 riyals to 11,000 riyals.

The re-election of President Rafsanjani is unlikely to change Iran's effort to end its international isolation. However, it faces an uphill struggle. Where the United States has failed to persuade its European friends to curb the export of high-technology equipment to Iran, which might have dual civilian and military use, those European countries are restricting exports because of concern over Iran's ability to pay its bills on time.

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