Iran's leader set for poll victory with clerical help: President Rafsanjani expects voters to renew his mandate for economic reform

THE FULL weight of the religious establishment was mobilised yesterday to encourage Iranians to vote in a presidential election that is set to give a fresh mandate to President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to continue market reforms. These have fuelled inflation and caused untold hardship for ordinary workers.

The country's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, would not endorse any candidate. But he said that it was a religious obligation of the country's voters to cast their ballots. Such action, he said, would disprove the insinuations of Zionists and imperialists who said that the Islamic revolution had died with Ayatollah Khomeini four years ago.

The sentiment was echoed by the son of the leader of the revolution. Hojatoleslam Ahmad Khomeini said yesterday was 'a decisive day for our people. Today the dear Iranian people will prove once again with their presence at the polling booths that they will continue to neutralise the propaganda ploys of the Western media.'

Elections are not prescribed in the Koran, nor do they derive from Islamic tradition, which favours the concept of shura, or consultation. Yet learned clerics used the television as their pulpit to explain that while the presidential system of government was borrowed from Western models, it was not incompatible with Islam.

In Tehran, voters passed through the brilliant tiled portals of mosques and schools to cast their votes. Revolutionary guards carried out spot checks on vehicles to prevent sabotage by opposition groups.

Yet for most it was neither religious obligation nor civic duty that impelled them to vote, but administrative necessity. In the absence of an electoral roll, the 29 million voters, men and women over 16, needed only to produce an identity card. This was then stamped to prevent voting more than once. Before the elections it was rumoured that those who failed to vote would not be able to secure ration cards, register their children at schools or get their pensions. No attempt was made to deny the rumours.

It was in the government's interests to secure a high turnout, to endorse the policies of the incumbent. Radical opponents of President Rafsanjani's reform programme, who had threatened to boycott the election, later decided to cast blank or spoilt ballot papers. Yet even if the turnout is low - polling stations were often nearly deserted - President Rafasanjani can be confident of a second term to carry out his plan to rescue the country from international isolation and lift it out of economic under-development.

Three other token candidates had been approved after being screened by the conservative clerical Council of Guardians, who could vouch for their credentials as true sons of the 1979 Islamic revolution. None enjoyed comparable stature to the pragmatic and experienced Mr Rafsanjani, who has dominated Iranian politics since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini. They were Ahmad Tavakkoli, an economics writer; Abdullah Jasbim, head of a private university; and Rajabali Taheri, a former MP.

The President has said he will concentrate on economic issues. The situation has deteriorated. The liberalisation of the economy, and privatisation of state assets, are matched by the exhaustion of foreign currency reserves at a time when oil revenues are under pressure from falling world prices. There is widespread dissatisfaction with the effects of the government's policies, especially in towns outside Tehran.

Though widely seen as a pragmatist, Mr Rafsanjani contradicted in an interview with Time magazine the idea that he was a moderate. 'These terms - moderate and extremist - are your words . . . Whenever I say that we would like to have peaceful co-existence with the West, the interpretation is that Iran would like to get rid of revolutionary values, but for us it is possible to have both. When I defend revolution, you say I'm a hard-liner. When I say we would like to have co-operation with the West, you say I'm being moderate. That's because you don't know Iran. As far as we are concerned, they go together.'

(Photograph omitted)