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Iran vote to tighten conservative grip

Latest update : 2008-03-15

Iranian voters elected a new parliament on Friday in a vote from which many reformist candidates were barred. The U.S., at odds with Iran since the Islamic Revolution, said the results were 'cooked'. FRANCE 24 correspondent Sophie Claudet reports.

Polls opened Friday at 8am across Iran for parliamentary elections that could offer pointers about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection chances in 2009.


As polling stations opened their doors to Iran’s 44 million eligible voters, all eyes were set on turnout. The government broadcast television programmes urging people to vote in a display of national unity against international sanctions. "Every ballot cast is a blow to the enemy", said a television presenter.

"So far it has been a glorious and the people have responded to the supreme leader's (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) call" to vote, Deputy Interior Minister Ali Reza Afshar told state television during the day. "If this trend continues, we will have the maximum turnout," he added, without giving figures.


On the streets of Tehran however, the reality seemed somewhat different. "Many analysts predict that the participation rate will be under 50%, especially in large cities like Tehran," said FRANCE 24's Sophie Claudet from Tehran. Among the factors influencing turnout, she cited "growing frustration about inflation – the inflation rate is nearing 20% – and an unofficial unemployment rate of 30%, especially among young people".


More crucially, many Iranian voters are expected to stay home rather than cast their ballots due to the lack of choice.


Since candidates are vetted by Iran's Council of Guardians - an unelected body of Islamic clerics and jurists - the staunchest reformist critics of the hardline president were disqualified from the race in a pre-vote screening process.


Among the 7,600 applications for candidature, the Council of Guardians approved 4,500 candidates based on their loyalty to the Islamic values of the 1979 Iranian Revolution.


The odds, it would seem, are stacked heavily in favour of the conservatives, including allies of the president.


But Iran, a nation with a predominantly young and relatively well-educated populace, can be unpredictable in its voting preferences, according to Bernard Hourcade, research director of Iranian and Indian affairs at the Paris-based National Centre for Scientific Research, known by its French acronym, CNRS.


“There are always surprises in the elections,” says Hourcade. 


No parties; just competing groups


While conservatives are widely expected to retain their majority in the 290-seat assembly, analysts say that does not necessarily mean they back Ahmadinejad’s foreign and, especially, economic policies.


According to Hourcade, there are three groups, each promising a different plan for their country. The favourites to win are the Ahmadinejad loyalists, who “brought out the revolution from within.”  They  are supported by the Bassiji, a network of activists who defend the islamic revolution's idelogy in workplaces and universities.


A second group comprises the former guardians of the revolution; its members are now in their 50s. According to Hourcade, this military force numbers around 120,000. Its veterans fought against Iraq and in the Lebanon. “They support the revolution, but they are nationalists first and foremost,” he explains.


Hourcade identifies a third group of former combatants who are more open to international issues, although they still want to keep an Islamic regime in Iran. Ari Larijani, former Iranian negotiator for nuclear issues, belongs to this movement. Hourcade further explains, “Teheran mayor Mohamed Baqer Qalibaf, who has been a general for 23 years and was the architect of the ‘Fat ol Mobine’ victory in 1982, is also a member.”


As the Commander of Nasr Forces during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, Qalibaf is considered a war hero in Iran.


Qalibaf and Larijani were rivals of Ahmadinejad in the 2005 presidential election. Says Hourcade, “They know that Iran is wasting oil revenues. They do not like the Americans, but they know it is necessary to deal with them.  They are for a more rational approach.”


Parliament, an influential institution


The president of the republic, under the sole authority of supreme leader of the revolution, Ali Khamenei, will lead the way regarding oil, international politics, and nuclear policy.


Parliament is not just a formality. They can refuse the nomination of ministers and block legal bills. Its elected body has a freedom of speech unimaginable in the rest of the country.


In 2005, President Ahmadinejad imposed sanctions on Chinese- and South Korean-made consumer electronics after those countries failed to support Iran in UN nuclear negotiations as they had promised. "Shopkeepers suffered from the ban and went to see the parliamentary representatives", Fariba Adelkhah, a Paris-based CERI-Sciences Po academic told FRANCE 24. "Within two weeks, the president lifted the ban."


Adelkhah said that Iranian voters no longer feel an obligation to come to the polls. Yet she sees the elections as a great moment of sociability, especially for Iranians who live outside the large cities. "Copious amounts of tea are drunk, people put out beautiful carpets," she said. "This is a moment when different groups and generations come together."

Date created : 2008-03-14