By Golnaz Esfandiari, RFE/RL
The head of Iran’s Basij force, Mohammad Reza Naghdi, has congratulated Iranians on their "epic" turnout in the country’s parliamentary elections. The only problem is that the elections aren't until March 2.
Naghdi said he is congratulating Iranians beforehand because he believes mass participation in the elections -- the first since the disputed 2009 presidential vote -- is certain.
The elections are expected to be a showdown between allies of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and traditional hard-liners loyal to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The official weeklong campaign began on February 23.
But the elections are also crucially important for the Iranian establishment, which is facing unprecedented international pressure over its controversial nuclear program and public discontent at home.
The clerical establishment needs a high turnout to claim legitimacy and prove -- both at home and abroad -- that it has the confidence of the people.
In recent weeks, the authorities have been using every opportunity to call on Iranians to cast their ballots en masse to deal a blow to "the enemies" and counter their threats.
A prominent hard-line cleric, Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi, has even said that not participating in the vote would be a sin.
Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi says people must vote
Naghdi, the Basij commander, has predicted that people’s participation in next week’s vote will be “beyond the imagination of friends and enemies.” According to official statistics, around 60 percent of eligible voters have participated in past parliamentary elections. The head of Iran’s Assembly of Experts, Ayatollah Mahdavi Kani, predicted earlier this month that 80 percent of Iranians will vote next week.
But reports from Tehran suggest that there is little enthusiasm for the poll, which is being boycotted by reformists. Observers say there is still widespread disillusionment over the allegedly rigged 2009 vote, which led to mass street protests.
Comments by Naghdi and other officials eager for a big turnout have led to suspicion about possible vote manipulation. International watchdogs have judged Iranian elections to be neither free nor fair.
An opposition group has called on Iranians to stay at home on election day in solidarity with the leaders of the opposition Green Movement, who have been under house arrest for the past year.
The coordination council of the Green Path of Hope has called on opposition members to turn up in public places like parks and shopping centers on election eve, March 1, to spread the word that these will be "show elections."
"The companions of the Green Movement should be reminded that civil disobedience takes different forms," the group said in a statement. "While sometimes we take to the streets to peacefully show our protest, at other times we stay at home and display our discontent by not going to the ballot boxes."
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