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Iranians Will Vote for New Leader

On Friday, June 17th, Iranians will vote for their next leader to replace outgoing President Mohammad Khatami.

Campaign posters, political websites, supporters distributing leaflets for their candidate. On its surface, Iran's capital, Tehran, appears no different than any other city preparing for a big election. But as Iran's Election Day arrives, there is a more urgent question Iranians face, whether or not to vote at all.

The current Iranian government, formed after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, still seeks political legitimacy in some quarters. This includes the United States, which has confronted Iran on its nuclear programs and other issues.

The government is trying to use that tension to boost turnout. Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati is Head of the State Guardian Council. "The Iranian nation should express its aversion to America by going to the polling centers and demonstrating high turnout."

Current surveys predict a low turnout among Iran's 48-million eligible voters. Ali Golpour is one of those who will not be voting. He explains, "I will not vote in the elections, I don't know who I should select from among the candidates because I do not know them. Those who have been presidents did not do anything for the good of people like me."

Most countries' electoral process includes a political party system through which candidates are narrowed down. In Iran, however, there is no such party system. Instead, there is the Guardian Council. The Guardian Council is an un-elected, conservative political body.

Among its duties is deciding who will or will not run for office under the Iranian Constitution. In the current presidential elections, the Council has reduced the number of presidential hopefuls from more than 1,000, to just eight.

This concerns some Iranian voters, as well as political observers from the international community. Joe Stork is with the nonprofit organization Human Rights Watch. He says, "The problem is that the people who are allowed to run, certainly, at the presidential level, come from inner circles."

Some disagree with the Guardian Council's interpretation of one word in their constitution, "nejaat." They say the Council's definition discriminates against women.

Mr. Stork, explains why this word is troublesome, "In the opinion of many Iranians, nejaat should be interpreted, in other words, refer to 'people' rather than to 'men'. But of course, the Guardian Council, being essentially a body attached to patriarchal values and gender discrimination, interprets it as men, so only men need apply."

Of the current field of candidates, polls show former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is the frontrunner. Many voters were disillusioned with President Mohammad Khatami's inability to implement liberal changes as he once promised.

They are shifting away from reformists and hard-line candidates, towards Mr. Rafsanjani's centrist position. Iranian businessman Davood tells why he agrees with Mr. Hashemi. "Since Mr. Hashemi has eight years experience of presidency and his economic policies are backed by most tradesmen, and also because he knows the country's market system very well, so he would be the only qualified person to do something for the good of the country."

Mr. Rafsanjani is giving mixed signals to the outside world. He is taking a hard nationalist stand on nuclear power, while also emphasizing that Iran is eager to rebuild its ties with other countries, including the U.S., in return for signs of cooperation. Mr. Rafsanjani's closest challengers are Reformist candidate Mostafa Moin, who has pledged to tackle human rights abuses, and conservative Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a national ex-police chief.

Hard-line candidate Mohsen Rezaei, former head of the Revolutionary Guards, withdrew from the elections. If none of the candidates wins a 50 percent majority, there will be a second run-off election between the two candidates with the most votes.