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Iranian Elections Marked by Apathy - 2004-02-26


Iran's Islamic hard-liners won a landslide victory in last week's parliamentary election - taking back control of parliament from reformists. The election has been widely condemned as neither free nor fair. But many people are not particularly concerned.

Votes were still being counted when evidence of the election began to disappear from the streets of Tehran, with workers scraping the remains of campaign posters off billboards and street signs. But Iranians will likely continue to debate the vote's implications for months, if not years to come.

Controversy erupted in January, when Iran's unelected Guardian Council exercised its authority to bar more than 2,300 reformist candidates from running in the election. The move prompted a sit-in protest, resignations by reformist members of parliament and an eventual boycott of the election by nearly all the reformists.

The result was a change in control in the parliament from the reformists, who won control four-years ago, to the conservatives allied with the Guardian Council and Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

With victory for the Islamic conservatives virtually assured, voter turnout hit a record low of just more than 50 percent. In Tehran, the figure was 23 percent.

But there was no public outrage expressed by Iran's students and other young people, who have staged demonstrations in the past when they have felt strongly about issues. Analysts say many of the young people are disillusioned because the reformists failed to liberalize many aspects of Iranian society during their four years in control of the parliament.

In the hallways and on the campus of the University of Tehran, many students say they have more important things to worry about than politics.

One student says today, the Iranian people hate politics, and he asks what would be the point of getting involved. But he adds that young people need jobs - and he hopes the new parliament concentrates on the economy.

Even though the Guardian Council's actions assured a conservative win at the polls, recent statements by the conservatives suggest they do not intend to take drastic steps to make Iranian society even more Islamic - at least, that is the impression they seem to want to give.

Just as the student demanded, leaders of Iran's conservative alliance have promised to make lowering unemployment their first priority. Other conservative candidates say they fully expect to be held accountable by the people.

"The president and ministers and the MP's, member of parliament, or everybody - they are officials, it depends on their work for people," says law professor S. Fazlollah Mousavi who was a conservative candidate from Tehran. "If they work for them, they support them. Otherwise, they change their ideas and they will choose other people as officials."

Reformists charge that the conservatives have merely learned the rhetoric associated with democratic rule, without taking any of its fundamental principles to heart. Backing those charges are the United States and the European Union, both of which have condemned the election as a setback for democracy in Iran.

But some in Iran are more optimistic, pointing out that the country's leading reformist, Mohammed Khatami, is still the president. They also note that the conservatives themselves are split between moderates and more hard-line factions.

Editor Morad Veisi of the reformist newspaper Yas-e No, or New Jasmine, says friction between those two groups, combined with pressure from reform-minded Iranians, could result in some political interaction that will look a lot like democracy.

Mr. Veisi says modern governments need to allow a free press and other human rights in order to attract foreign investment, and that may motivate Iran's newly powerful conservatives to be less conservative in their actions than many people expect. That is a noteworthy statement coming from a man whose newspaper was closed by the conservative judiciary in the days leading to the election.

One student at the University of Tehran put it another way. He said there will be no aggressive reform program by the new parliament, but there will also be no revolution against the conservatives. He said there will be something in-between, some form of push and pull of political forces as Iran moves through four years of conservative control in its parliament.