'Coffins of freedom'

International | IRAN: Reformers may trip over ayatollah-rigged elections-but they can't rig turnout

Issue: "Mel Gibson's passion," Feb. 28, 2004

The streets of Tehran may retain their fundamentalist pall, but technology is surreptitiously propelling the Islamic republic into the 21st century. In the week leading up to parliamentary elections, student revolutionaries circulated chain text messages via their cell phones declaring, "The ballot boxes of Friday are the coffins of freedom. We will not take part in the funeral of freedom."

The only suspense surrounding Feb. 20 elections-the country's seventh since the Islamic revolution in 1979-is how many will turn out, not who will be elected. Iran's unelected Guardians Council, a chamber of hardline clerics who effectively rule the country, already has seen to the results by disqualifying 2,300 candidates from standing for elections. The banned contenders are nearly all reformists who would like, at a minimum, to ease the hardline grip of the ayatollahs. Among them are leading moderate politicians and more than 80 currently serving members of the Majlis, or parliament.

The Guardians Council did give a green light to more than 5,600 candidates, but nearly 1,000 of them withdrew their candidacies in protest. Reformers expect that turnout will be so low, the Guardians Council will wish it had postponed elections. But Supreme Ayatollah Khameini, who has final say on affairs of state, ordered the elections to proceed and predicted a buoyant turnout.

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Unlike the elections themselves, opponents believe the turnout cannot be rigged. Ahead of the polls, prominent reformers predicted as few as 20 percent of eligible voters will cast ballots, thanks in part to the students' text-message campaigns. "The turnout will be weak," said Mohammad Reza Khatami, a brother of Iran's embattled President Mohammad Khatami and the leader of the main reformist party, the Islamic Iran Participation Front (IIPF), which is boycotting the polls.

Despite the ayatollahs' obvious grip, many reformers are nonetheless disenchanted with President Khatami, who came into office in 1997 promising a kinder, gentler Islamic state. He refused to have his photo made poster-size on public buildings, reached out to women and minorities, and promised to "interpret religion in a manner which would not contradict freedom." With 16 months left in his term, Iranians increasingly see him as a weak political leader and toady to the ruling clerics.

"I was one of millions who voted for Khatami, because if they did not do so the conservatives would have won the election. We had no alternative," said Shirin Ebadi, the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize recipient who is a prominent human-rights lawyer in Iran. "Unfortunately, we must acknowledge that President Khatami has wasted all the historical chances given him, and the democratic and reform movements have bypassed him."

In his remaining months of office President Khatami is likely to have only fewer opportunities for genuine reform, after election results decidedly hand control of the legislature back to the ayatollahs.


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