Litmus test for Ahmadinejad as Iran's moderates battle to win back voters

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The Independent Online

Iran's firebrand President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, faced his first real popularity test yesterday in two tightly contested elections.

With the results crucial to the balance of power in Iran, a low turnout could hand victory to the President's hardline faction, but it will also lead to questions about his legitimacy.

The contest is fiercest in Qom, home to Iran's clerical elite and the epicentre of modern Shia Islam. On the streets, the mood is reflective, but in mosques and seminaries a bitter struggle is going on.

The Assembly of Experts meets only twice a year, but is potentially the most important elected body in the country. Traditionally, it has been filled with religious figures who are content to rubber-stamp the decisions of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Now radicals want to take control and pull Iran further to the right. This faction is headed by Mr Ahmadinejad's clerical mentor, Ayatollah Mohammed Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi.

He faces an alliance of traditionalist and pragmatist clerics around Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president. A few years ago this coalition would have been unthinkable, but the hardliners' rise has pushed former enemies together.

Composed of Islamic scholars who have to pass a test in jurisprudence, the assembly can dismiss, supervise or appoint the Supreme Leader. Under Iran's Islamic system, the leader stands above the democratically elected president and holds ultimate authority.

The mood at the Imam Khomeini Research Institute, the wealthy, modern seminary headed by Mesbah-Yazdi, is quietly confident. Victory could also help cement the more radical camp as the strongest religious force in the seminaries of Qom.

"Those on Mesbah-Yazdi's list believe they have a more positive view of the Islamic system and the leader," said Ali Akbar Alemian, deputy editor of the institute's magazine Parto. "They believe in the appointment of the leader by God, not by the electorate. And as the assembly is drawn from the seminaries, it shapes the ideas of Qom."

Many candidates are well known senior ayatollahs or mullahs, but it can be difficult to distinguish their political views. Enthusiasm for the vote is limited, with more attention on the nationwide council elections.

The big prize is control of Tehran, which has a budget of hundreds of millions of pounds and propels mayors to political stardom - like Mr Ahmadinejad. This time, his faction is fighting a coalition of reformists and technocrats. They support the current mayor, Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf, a former darling of hardliners who is now enmeshed in a ferocious rivalry with the President.

"The last council did a lot of things so it does make a difference," said Ali Akbar Jaffari, emerging from a Tehran polling station. "We should be spending more money to help young people instead of blowing it on the military."

The last Tehran elections in 2003 were the beginning of the end for reformists, but they hope disillusionment over Mr Ahmadinejad's unfulfilled economic promises will bring back their voters.