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Iran Elections to be Held Friday Despite Charges They Will Be Unfair - 2004-02-20

Iran will choose its legislators Friday in elections the president and many leading reformers have called unfair. Hundreds of mostly reformist candidates have been disqualified and the hard-line conservatives are seen as having already won. But analysts say that does not necessarily mean Iran's reformist movement is coming to an end.

As parliamentary candidates wrapped up their campaigning this week, the big question in Iran is not as much who to vote for, as whether to vote at all.

Pro-reform student groups, many reformist members of government and Iranian intellectuals, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, have all pledged to boycott Friday's parliamentary election. They say that voter refusal to turn up for a largely predetermined poll will send a message to the conservative powers in Iran that they do not have popular support.

The dilemma is reflected in electronic messages sent out to thousands of cell phone users. One heavily circulated message calls the ballot boxes coffins of freedom, and says, "We will not take part in the funeral of freedom".

Some analysts are predicting the voter turnout might be as low as 10 to 15 percent of eligible voters.

The reformist president, Mohammed Khatami, however, is urging Iranians to vote. And Iran's state television has been repeatedly airing a message by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, telling voters to participate in the election.

A journalist with Iran's state run-news agency, Khalil Hedayati, says he thinks the ayatollah's message will be effective. "I think after coming from Ayatollah Khomenei asking people to participate in the election, I hope we will have a good turnout," he said. "You can see the participation of people on the ceremony on the anniversary of the revolution. You see that people are still behind the Islamic revolution."

But in an open letter released earlier this week, several-dozen incumbent legislators criticized the ayatollah for allowing thousands of reformist candidates to be disqualified. Two pro-reform newspapers that published excerpts of the letter were both shut down late Wednesday by Iran's hard-line judiciary office.

Speaking out against Iran's supreme leader is a crime in Iran.

Many political observers believe that the disqualification of more than 2,000 reformist candidates from running will give the conservatives a majority in the parliament, which has been controlled by liberal legislators since 2000.

An expert on Iran, and lecturer in the faculty of political science at Cairo University, Amal Hamada, says if that happens, tensions will rise.

"I think it will intensify the conflict between the reformers and the conservatives," he said. "The problem is if we see a passive resistance and after that a parliament taken over by the conservatives, then we can never predict how bad the reaction of the people will be. I do not think it will stay as a passive resistance, it will develop more into opposition, real opposition, maybe some kind of riots and civil disobedience to the authorities, so the future is really is going to be gloomy."

But even if Islamic hard-liners win most of the seats in parliament, observers say that does not mean pro-reformers will be completely silenced. Mohamed El-Saiid Abdel Moemen, professor of Iranian Studies at Ains Shams University in Cairo, says the parliament will undergo a reorganization, but that may not necessarily result in conservative dominance of Iran's political future.

He says the Guardian Council's move was intended to eliminate radical reformists, but he believes that a more moderate trend toward reforms will continue.

With the mass disqualification, reformist candidates will be able to compete for about one-half of the 290 parliamentary seats. That gives the hard-liners a significant edge, but their anticipated victory is already stained with popular perception that the elections will not be free and fair.