Iran poll marks reformists' fall from grace

Iranians today elect their parliament amid one of the most serious political crises in the Islamic republic's history.

The poll is likely to mean the end for President Mohammad Khatami's reformist movement and his chances of effecting real change. But Nahid, a 19-year-old medical student was not be voting. She said: "I don't have anybody to vote for and the things I want done will not be done by the deputies on offer. I voted for President Khatami in his second presidential election but the present situation is 100 per cent his fault. If he took a firmer stance, things would have improved."

On the streets of Tehran, her feelings were echoed across all classes and ages. The elections, and politics in general, are seen as a game for the elite, which cannot be influenced by the people. The reformists are held to have miserably failed after winning successive mandates to create real change. And President Khatami, once adulated, is falling ever further into popular disfavour.

More worrying for the conservative jurists who stand to benefit from the reformists' fall from grace, the public appears to be rejecting a direct order from the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to vote. "I do not respect the Supreme Leader, so why should I follow his orders?" asked Nahid, whose traditional clothing defines her as a member of the social group conservatives would like to claim as their own.

"You see how those who are against the Iranian nation and the revolution are trying so hard to prevent people from going to the polls," the Ayatollah told state television in Tehran. "I do not think these enthusiastic young people will be prevented from fulfilling their duty."

Reformists seeking to boycott the elections used e-mail, websites and a blitz of mobile phone text messages to urge voters to stay away. The main website of the Islamic Participation Front, the main reformist group, appeared to have been blocked by state-imposed filters.

Conservatives responded with the full power of state media: nonstop coverage radio and television coverage with pro-vote comments from citizens and leaders and claims of a massive turnout. At a mosque in central Tehran, loudspeakers broadcast voting appeals.

Criticism of the leader has always been taboo in Iranian politics, but 70 angry reformist MPs this week wrote an open letter to Ayatollah Khamenei, accusing him of publicly seeking a compromise while secretly allowing hardliners to prevent a fair election. Some 2,300 reformist candidates were barred from participating in the poll, denying the reformists any chance of victory even with popular support. The main reformist party and dozens of other candidates are now boycotting the elections and calling on Iranians not to vote.

Today has become a battle for turn-out. Religious edicts have been made, saying it is an Islamic duty to vote. State media have made repeated demands for for a large turn-out. Although there is no compulsion to participate, voters receive a stamp in their identity cards that can help oil the wheels of officialdom.

For each of the six parliamentary and seven presidential elections since the 1979 Islamic revolution, voter turnout has been well above 50 per cent, sometimes rising to more than 90 per cent. Today, less than 30 per cent are expected to show with turnout in Tehran dropping to perhaps 10 per cent. For many, that represents a real crisis of legitimacy in the Islamic republic.

Things could not be more different from 23 May 1997, when a groundswell of support unexpectedly swept Mr Khatami to power. The President was an unlikely hero, an unassuming cleric known for his courtesy who had edited the official Kayhan newspaper and headed the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance in the early years of the Islamic republic.

It looked as though the reformist tide would sweep through Iranian politics, driven by public pressure and with Mr Khatami riding the crest of the wave. The movement soon became a family affair, as Mohammed Reza Khatami, the President's younger brother, led the largest reform party to power in the Majlis in early 2000. His wife, Zahra Eshraghi, was another leading reformist MP and the granddaughter of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, father of the Islamic republic. In the early days, Mr Khatami achieved some major successes, exposing corruption in the Intelligence Ministry, promoting a free press and re-establishing strong relations with Europe. But opposition from entrenched conservatives grew stronger; newspapers were closed, legislation was vetoed and dissidents were arrested. The President protested but could do nothing.

Public anger rose. People felt the reformists were providing a veneer of legitimacy to the same old government. They asked why Mr Khatami had not resigned. The question has dogged his term of office; allies begged him to step down in protest at the obstruction to change. Mr Khatami said that the conservatives created a crisis "every nine days".

The "reluctant President" has sometimes come across as weak, but his ambition has always been to preserve the Islamic republic through gentle and non-confrontational change. Ali Hekmat, who used to edit several banned newspapers and work with Mr Khatami, said: "He tries to move in the balance of equilibrium and is very frightened by the threat of anarchy and chaos in society. His cautiousness is understandable. He will make threats but I don't think he will ever really resign because he is frightened of the consequences for society."

This caution is interpreted by many disillusioned reformists as cowardice. When demonstrators took to the streets around Tehran University campus last summer, a minority were shouting: "Death to Khatami!"

Fazl Maybodi, a reformist cleric who shared a house with Mr Khatami in the early 1980s and shaped his decision to run for office in 1997, said the President's placid public front hides bitter anger. Mr Maybodi said: "He is privately very upset and talks angrily about what the conservatives do to him, but in public he tries not to reveal what he thinks."

Mr Khatami and the reformist Majlis have offered resistance to hardliners in human rights, social freedom and press accountability. Now there are fears that the liberal gains of recent years could be rolled back. On the eve of the election came a warning: the reformist newspapers Shargh and Yas-e No were banned for printing the reformists' letter attacking the Supreme Leader.

THE CANDIDATES

Over 2,400 pro-reform candidates have been disqualified. The main groups and individuals still taking part are:

PRO-REFORM

* Coalition For Iran: More than 200 candidates

MODERATE

* Mehdi Karrubi: Islamic cleric and speaker of parliament

* Majid Ansari: Islamic cleric and MP

* Mahmoud Doai: Islamic cleric, head of country's oldest newspaper

CONSERVATIVE

* Abadgaran Iran-e-Islami, or Developers of Islamic Iran: Coalition led by Gholamali Haddad-Adel, a relative of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

* Hossein Sheikholeslam: Former deputy foreign minister

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