Iranians head to the polls

Reports indicate that a high percentage of reformist candidates have been prevented from running.

Iran elections 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Iran elections 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
As Iran's parliamentary election campaign draws to a close, candidates will do just about anything to gain more votes. One such candidate, from the remote village of Siah-Koleh, has stuck election posters on chickens, which walked around the village, unaware of their newly acquired political responsibilities. Some 5,000 candidates nation-wide are wooing more than 40 million eligible Iranian voters ahead of the March 14 elections. However, it seems no matter what methods they use, a low turnout is to be expected, for several reasons. Various reports have already indicated that the Guardian Council, in charge of candidate disqualifications, has prevented a high percentage of the reformist candidates from running. This alone may cause many of their supporters to boycott the elections.  But this is probably not the major reason affecting turnout come Election Day. "The major problem right now, that may affect turnout, is the fact that we are very close to the Iranian New Year. That, I think, is of more concern at the moment in Teheran than anything else," Prof. Seyyed Muhammad Marandi of the Institute of North American and European Studies at the University of Teheran told The Media Line. The Iranian Nowruz (New Year) falls this year on March 21, only one week after Election Day. People are busy shopping for gifts and planning their yearly vacation, so politicians must work hard if they want to catch their attention. Also not helping is the fact that election campaigns could only formally begin on March 9 after the Guardian Council approved the final candidate lists.  Two blocs, four lists On December 14, 2007 the reformists announced the formation of a 21-party coalition, including parties headed by former presidents Muhammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Nevertheless, they were unable to present one unified list of candidates partly because of the massive disqualifications but also due to internal conflicts. Two major blocs of reformist parties will run in Friday's elections. Their supporters fear this might harm the collaborative effort to reform Iran.  "Taking into account the sensitive conditions of the country - when resolutions are passed against us one after the other - and the difficult economic days coming, people expect that the great figures among the reformists do their best so that a single list would be published," Muhammad 'Ali Abtahi, an Iranian reformist, wrote in his blog earlier this month. As it stands now, there are four major lists, two of them belonging to the reformists, one to the conservative bloc and another to a centrist party. Whatever the outcome, many inside Iran and abroad are skeptical with regard to the influence the parliament has on the decision-making process. Western experts on Iran express the view that the Iranian parliament is an important place for venting different ideas, but that it has become an almost neutered body. During former president Khatami's period in power (1997-2005), the parliament was controlled by a majority bloc of reformists. Those eight years saw a huge change of rhetoric and even some relaxation in various social rules. In terms of foreign or security policies, however, there were hardly any changes. Largely disappointed with the reformist movement, Mehrangiz Kar, a prominent Iranian human rights activist, believes her compatriots are limited to choose between the lesser of two evils. Kar, who has been living in the United States since 2001, wrote in her blog that the systematic suppression of reforms and the weakness of the reformists themselves have ‎led to the defeat of the reform movement. And indeed, the reformist coalition only won 39 seats in the 2004 elections, leaving 156 seats to the conservatives and 95 seats to independents. The influence of the parliament on the conduct of the president is limited. Nevertheless, Marandi of the University of Teheran, believes that if there were to be a major shift in the parliament's balance of power, it could do damage to President Mahmoud Ahmadi Nejad, who will attempt to secure a second term in office in 2009. Such a shift, however, does not seem realistic at the moment. "I am predicting that all four lists will get some of their candidates into parliament, and that it will probably be a rather centrist parliament," Marandi said.