By Farangis Najibullah, RFE/RL
Here's one, just in: "Participating in this election means supporting the regime. Those who are for it can go and vote." So says Saeed from Tehran, one of scores of Radio Farda listeners who have sent in their views -- by text message or email -- on what the Iranian authorities insist will be democratic parliamentary polls on March 14. Most, if not all, disagree with that description.
They see the contest, involving 4,500 candidates for 290 seats in the Majlis, as little more than democratic window-dressing. They point to the thousands of reformist candidates, deemed unfit to represent the Islamic revolution, who have been barred from running. And they note the state-run media's bias toward the ruling conservatives and "Principalist" faction of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.
"These polls are taking place only among the Osoolgrayan (Principalists) and their insiders," says Nasim, a female listener who texted a message from Mashhad. "There is no opportunity for others."
But the others are trying, even if many voters claim not to see much of a difference between the three reformist parties that make up the opposition camp and the two factions that comprise the conservative coalition.
Former President Mohammad Khatami, a leading reformist, has urged a massive turnout by voters for the opposition to reverse their 2004 electoral defeat and retake control of parliament. "We must safeguard fundamental freedoms," Khatami said. "That's what reformism is all about."
It's also about risking disqualification from the race.
More than 7,000 candidates were initially registered to run in the election, but some 3,000 were disqualified during the screening process -- the huge majority of them reformists. As in the last parliamentary polls in 2004, the Guardians Council -- the 12-member body that answers to Iran's supreme leader -- later reinstated nearly 1,000 barred candidates. Yet many of the top reformists were still kept out.
The mass disqualification of their candidates means the reformists will compete for only about half the seats in parliament. The Majlis, already dominated by conservatives, looks set to stay that way. Which explains the feelings of Iranians like Hamid, who wrote in a text message from Esfahan: "What freedom? What justice? What election? In this Islamic Republic? To talk about justice here is laughable!"
But as reformists bemoan their fate, conservatives look to the future. Indeed, if anything, the polls can be seen as a referendum on Ahmadinejad, whose hard-line foreign policy and rhetoric have helped isolate Iran and bring about three sets of United Nations sanctions over Tehran's failure to cooperate on its nuclear program. The sanctions, among other things, have made it harder for Iranians and their banks to do business, a development that has led some conservatives to break ranks with the president.
Above all, the right-wing dissenters take issue with the style, if not substance, of Ahmadinejad's foreign policy. Dubbed the Broad Principalist Coalition, they are led by Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, former Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps chief Mohsen Rezaie, and former top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani. All three men are reported to be considering running in next year's presidential elections.
Meanwhile, the president's United Principalist Front, though under fire from fellow conservatives, is hoping to consolidate its hold on power. Analysts like its chances. Yet apart from the right-wing critics' views of Ahmadinejad and his confrontational approach abroad, it is difficult to detect major differences between the conservative blocs.
There are also two reformist coalitions competing for votes, albeit far smaller than the conservative factions, due to the disqualifications. Some 30 parties make up the Khatami-inspired Reformist Coalition. Khatami has been critical of his successor's economic policies. As president from 1997 to 2005, he was also known for promoting political openness, press freedom, and reducing tensions with the United States.
The other grouping, the National Confidence Party, is led by the reformist former speaker of parliament, Mehdi Karroubi. Karroubi is seen by many Iranian observers as a possible candidate in the 2009 presidential elections.
Analysts say the reformists mostly depend on
votes from the middle class, youth, and educated Iranians. Conservatives, and
particularly Ahmadinejad supporters, depend more on voters from outside Tehran
and poorer rural areas. "The reformists focus on criticizing Mr. Ahmadinejad's
government, including foreign policy, economic hardships, and restrictions on
student political movements and women," says Ali Reza Haghighi, a professor at
the University of Toronto.
No Talk Of The Issues
Yet there has been little public policy debate, even as ordinary Iranians grapple with joblessness and runaway inflation. "There are no visible disagreements between the candidates' positions and slogans," Saeed Rajayi Khorasani, a former parliamentarian, tells Radio Farda. "Most candidates are principalists. But the reformists have not presented a platform that is tangibly different from the conservatives'."
Which explains partly why the polls appear to have failed to attract the attention of many Iranians, especially young people. Iranian state-run television this week reported predictions that voter turnout would be near 60 percent. Yet most messages received by Radio Farda suggest apathy will win the day.
"Once more, with this election, the regime is fooling people," Ali, from the city of Jooybar in northern Mazandaran Province, says in an email. He is partly echoed by a Tehran bazaar trader interviewed by Reuters: "The candidates must promise something they can actually deliver on," Masoud Amiri was quoted as saying. "They really must work and try to solve young people's problems in housing and unemployment. Slogans are not enough -- they must act."
Similar sentiments, to be sure, are heard among voters in Western democracies. And analysts say that despite their shortcomings, Iran's parliamentary elections are better than anything the region's other authoritarian regimes offer.
Conservatives clearly also have their supporters, who sent in messages to Radio Farda as well. Like a man called "K." Writing from the port of Bandar Abbas, he says the elections will finally "strike a blow" to U.S. President George W. Bush. Others say they will vote out of patriotism. "I am Iranian and will vote for Iran," one listener says. "Unity is the most important thing -- the principalists and reformists are no different."
Yet for others, that's the problem.
And even as differences between right and left may not be huge, the disqualification of reformists means many Iranians see their choice as between two conservative blocs -- one supportive of the president, the other a little less so.
"Please tell me, what sort of enthusiasm could send us to the voting booths?" asks Mr. Abdibeig, a listener from Orumieh. "What kind of hope?"
RFE/RL correspondent Iraj Gorgin and Radio Farda's Javad Koorushy contributed to this report
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