Reformists boycott 'illegal' Iran elections

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The Independent Online

Reformist parties have decided to boycott next week's Iranian elections in the face of what they call a parliamentary coup d'état. After the failure of last-ditch talks to secure the requalification of most of their candidates, reformists said there was no longer any chance of a deal. Conservatives have escalated the tension with threats to punish officials who refuse to participate.

"We announce with regret that we will not take part in the parliamentary election because it is illegal, unfair and not free," protesting MPs said in a statement on Thursday, alleging that the disqualification of several thousand candidates by the hardline Guardian Council had been planned two years earlier to secure conservative domination of the Majlis, or parliament. The election on 20 February will almost certainly now result in a conservative victory with record-low voter turnout. The fall of the Majlis to conservatives will leave President Mohammed Khatami politically isolated as he faces a final year in office as a lame duck president.

On Wednesday, Iran celebrates the 25th anniversary of the Islamic revolution but the election crisis has thrown the Islamic Republic's democratic credentials into doubt. In Tehran the bunting and posters have been up for a month, but there is disillusionment with the government - particularly with the reformists who promised so much but have been opposed by unelected conservative jurists.

Recent weeks have been fraught with tension as reformists strove to rescind the Guardian Council's mid-January decision to bar more than 3,500 mainly reformist candidates, including 83 sitting MPs, from contesting the election. Despite pressure from the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, less than 1,500 of the candidates have been reinstated. MPs ended a 26-day sit-in on Thursday after it became apparent that last-ditch attempts to broker a deal had failed.

The debate is heated. "Khatami cannot hold illegal elections. He has no right to," said Hossein Ansari-Raad a mullah and dissident MP, in a speech on Thursday. "The elections cannot be held as [conservatives] wish. The result will be a defamation of the Islamic system. Without the republican aspect, the Islamic aspect has to go."

Mr Khatami's government is now forced to carry out elections it has said would be unfair and illegal. Cabinet ministers and vice presidents have threatened to resign and the Interior Ministry, which carries out the elections, asked for a delay in the poll. But Ayatollah Khamenei last week insisted that it would go ahead on schedule, and that resigning from office was religiously forbidden. On Friday, the head of the judiciary said that officials could be prosecuted for not participating - making high-level resignations unlikely.

But Mr Khatami is under pressure from allies to make a stand by resigning. "I think the first thing that Khatami may do is announce that the elections are not fair, but they have to carry them out," said Mohsen Mirdamadi, a prominent dissident MP and one of the student leaders of the 1979 hostage crisis, who is among those disqualified.

"If he had resigned before, we would not be in this position now. I'm not sure he won't resign in the next few weeks, and I think that would be the best option for him."

Demands for the President's resignation have been a feature of his second term, which started in spring 2001. Mr Khatami, who believes in patient negotiation with hardliners, has always resisted the more radical urges of his supporters. But now they say his honour and popularity are on the line.

If Mr Khatami stayed on after an election widely perceived as illegal, he could be abandoned by his former supporters as a puppet of the hardliners. He would also be isolated in government without the support of a reformist parliament. But if he decided to resign, the President could provoke the very crisis he has always tried to avoid.

However, the prospect of major public demonstrations remains distant. The electoral crisis does not appear to have gripped Iranians, although they are largely opposed to the disqualification of reformist candidates.

At issue is a bitter battle over the constitutional heart of Iran and the legacy of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of the Islamic Republic. Reformists claim they are the true heirs to Khomeini, who they say never meant the Guardian Council to have such an important role.