Iranian parliamentary elections to begin

Ruling hard-line government effectively 'hijacks' elections by disqualifying many reform candidates.

Ahmadinejad brilliant  (photo credit: AP [file])
Ahmadinejad brilliant
(photo credit: AP [file])
Ali Farahani smiles as he talks about Iran's parliament elections Friday. The young cleric in this spiritual center of the Islamic revolution says the vote will sweep the country closer to hard-liners' ideal of the Islamic state. In Teheran, computer technician Hadi Rezaei, a backer of democratic reforms, sees little hope - and no reason to vote. Conservatives, particularly allies of hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, are expected to maintain the domination of parliament they have had since 2004. If they do so by a strong margin, it would demonstrate the Islamic leadership's ability to ward off a comeback by reformists. Ahead of the vote, the Guardian Council - an unelected body of clerics and jurists - disqualified around 1,700 candidates, mostly reformists. Those barred from running were judged insufficiently loyal to Islam or the revolution. As a result, reformists have said they are not running in as many as 200 of the 290 races around the country. Many of the reform candidates who were allowed to compete are little-known. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, threw his support behind hard-liners. In a speech Wednesday, he called on voters to back candidates who are opposed to the US and "whose loyalties are to Islam and justice." In Qom, Farahani said Ahmadinejad's government "is moving ahead. Some may criticize that it hasn't reached the goal, but it is in motion, and that is good. The motion should not be stopped." "Conservatives are right, society is in a process of change," said the 24-year-old, who teaches at one of Qom's many Islamic seminaries. The 1979 Islamic revolution's principles "are Islam's principles - justice, protection of human dignity," he said. Qom, 129 kilometers south of Teheran, is the heartland of Iran's clerical establishment, where most top ayatollahs are based. The clerics that emerge from its seminaries fill some senior government positions and the unelected bodies that oversee the government, such as the Guardian Council. The disqualifications of candidates have divided reform supporters. Some have decided to boycott the vote. "We can't bring deep democratic changes within the ruling establishment through the ballot box," the 29-year-old Rezaei said. "Once, I used to vote for reformers but it didn't work. The Guardian Council has already decided the elections." But reform leaders are pressing their backers to go to the polls, hoping that with a large turnout they can at least build a strong minority in parliament, rather than the handful of seats they now have. "It is not a fair or free election but I will still vote," said Ahmad Moshkelati, who writes for the pro-reform newspaper Mardomsalari or Democracy. "Boycotting the vote only strengthens hard-liners and further weakens reformers." Campaigning, which ended Thursday, has been without fanfare. The vote is taking place at a time when there is widespread discontent with Ahmadinejad's government because of high inflation and unemployment. Ahmadinejad also has disillusioned some conservative supporters, who say his anti-Western rhetoric has hurt Iran and that he has failed to bring more moderate conservatives into the decision-making process. Moderate conservatives appear not to have coalesced into a strong force in the campaign. A list of candidates, called the Inclusive Coalition of Principlists, includes several conservative critics of Ahmadinejad. But top figures considered moderate conservatives, such as former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and former nuclear negotiator Hasan Rowhani have not come out to campaign for the list. Ahmadinejad's allies have mostly joined another slate of candidates, known as the United Front of Principlists, a name that refers to their adherence to the principles of the Islamic revolution. Some 4,500 candidates nationwide are running for parliament's 290 seats in Friday's vote. Interior Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi said 45,000 polling stations will open on Friday morning in an election where an estimated 44 million Iranians of over 18 years of age are eligible to vote. Turnout may be a key issue in the results. In 2004 elections, which were swept by hard-liners after most reform candidates were barred from the race, turnout was around 51 percent. In previous votes won by reformists, it was closer to 80 percent. Reformists say they have the support of a silent majority that, if it turns out, swings elections to them. A survey released Thursday by the official Iranian news agency IRNA foresees a voter turnout of about 50 percent in Teheran and 60 percent in other major cities. The news agency said some 15,000 eligible voters were canvassed for the survey last week in the capital and other big cities. Independent surveys are not openly reported in Iran, and results of government-sponsored studies cannot be independently verified. IRNA, which is government-run, did not specify who had conducted the survey. No margin of error was given.