Quoted from the Jordan Times, Feb 20-21, 2004


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Iran conservatives poised for election win; reformists under attack

TEHRAN (AFP) — Iran's Islamic conservatives were poised to tighten their grip on power here Friday by winning controversial parliamentary polls and sweeping out a frustrated and largely disqualified reformist majority.

With most reformist candidates barred from standing and public indifference widespread, the only element of suspense was how many of Iran's 46.3 million eligible voters would turn out.

The conservatives were expected to reverse the crushing reformist majority and add parliament to the wealth of political and security institutions they already control in the 25-year-old Islamic republic.

On the eve of the vote, the reformist camp also came under renewed pressure with the hardline judiciary shutting down two newspapers that dared to publish a scathing protest letter from reformist MPs to the country's supreme leader.

And Iran's powerful intelligence minister sought to put an end to fears the polls were being rigged after some disgruntled MPs claimed hardliners were taking no chances and had printed fake voter cards.

"The distribution of such a great number of fake identity cards, undetected by supervisory and executive organisations, would be out of the question," Intelligence Minister Ali Yunesi was quoted as saying by the state news agency IRNA.

He added that such claims were part of a "psychological war" against the regime, which regularly warns of US or "Zionist" plots, and warned that those responsible for circulating them could be prosecuted.

The office of Tehran's hardline public prosecutor closed and sealed off the premises here of pro-reform dailies Shargh and Yas-e No, the latest victims of an unforgiving judicial campaign against the pro-refom press.

They were the only two newspapers who ignored an official ban and carried a letter from incumbent reformist deputies that questioned Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's role in the mass disqualifications.

Some 70 reformists who had resigned from parliament in protest warned of a "widening gap between the regime and the people" and asked if Khamenei had allowed the disqualifications of 2,300 candidates, all but killing off their election chances. Criticising the supreme leader is a serious criminal offence in Iran. An official from the prosecutions office, Seyed Hossien Hossinian, was quoted as saying by the student news agency ISNA that the Yas-e No newspaper had "insulted the supreme leader" and had "published propaganda against the Islamic republic." IRNA said the papers had been shut "until further notice."

Campaigning for seats in the Majlis officially ended across Iran overnight Wednesday, bringing to a close an event that has been marked by widespread voter apathy.

Out of the 5,625 candidates who were given the green light to stand, 888 have pulled out. Reformists are only campaigning for 200 of the 290 seats up for grabs, and the main reform parties are boycotting.

On Wednesday and Thursday, text messages urging people not to vote were circulating over the mobile phone network. One message received said that on Friday, "the ballot box will be the coffin of democracy."

Even before the disqualifications, many Iranians had been highly critical of the reformists and their President Mohammad Khatami's failure to deliver promises of greater democracy in the face of constant obstruction by conservatives.

But top figures in the regime, including Khamenei and former president Akbar Hasemi Rafsanjani, have been calling for a large turnout in messages repeated several times a day on conservative-run state radio and television.

Polling stations, set up in schools and mosques, open Friday from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm (0430 GMT to 1430 GMT), but voting may be extended until midnight.

The first results are expected Saturday, with a definitive tally coming several days later. A second round may be required if no candidate in a particular district wins 25 per cent of the vote. The main conservative bloc expected to do well is the Coalition of Builders of Islamic Iran, a grouping that has been keen to present itself as a pragmatic force, and not the puritanical "Taleban" that reformists are warning of.

The United States also added its voice to concerns over the elections here, warning that a future parliament is unlikely to reflect the will of the Iranian people — who in the past have turned out in large numbers to back reformers promising greater democracy.

"We think the government of Iran needs to listen to people, needs to allow the people an opportunity to express their voices," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, adding, "this election is not shaping up in that fashion."

But such criticism was dismissed by the head of the judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahrudi.

"The late Imam Khomeini left a yardstick for us to distinguish right from wrong," he said of Iran's revolutionary founder. "And that is whenever the enemies praise us, we should know that we are on the wrong track, and whenever the enemies speak against us we should know that we are on the right track."

Friday-Saturday, February 20-21, 2004

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