Sunday, April 24, 2005

Promises ($60 for Instance) Fail to Rouse Iran's Voters

Nazila Fathi, The New York Times:
With elections less than two months away, Iran's presidential hopefuls are scrambling to lure voters, promising everything from lowering the soaring prices of fruit and vegetables to normalizing relations with the country's longtime foe, the United States. READ MORE

But much of the public is deeply apathetic. There is no real chance for a candidate who can spearhead the democratic changes once promised by the departing president, Mohammad Khatami, who proved unable to ward off the encroachment of the Guardian Council and its repressive agenda. Over the last eight years, the opposition has been marginalized as the judiciary has shut down more than 100 pro-change newspapers and journals and jailed dozens of advocates and intellectuals.

Candidates, will be on the June 17th ballot only if approved by the council, which consists of six judges and six clerics. Those who are deemed politically undesirable will be forced out of the race.

But the public seems ever less convinced that the council, created after the 1979 Iranian revolution to oversee all government decisions, should have such power.

When it barred more than 2,000 candidates from parliamentary elections in 2004, widespread disillusionment followed. Recent freer elections in Afghanistan and Iraq have made election constraints harder to justify.

Last Sunday, President Khatami spoke to the council, against a backdrop of rising international pressure over Iran's nuclear program. The Bush administration has even suggested that Israel might act pre-emptively, as it did in 1981 when it bombed an Iraqi nuclear reactor.

"If people feel the candidates they want to vote for are banned from running, they will get disillusioned," he said. "The country is faced with very obvious foreign threats. Only a large turnout can give legitimacy to the regime and deter the threats."

Such a turnout appears unlikely.

The student movement, a driving force behind the landslide election of President Khatami in 1997, has been so alienated by his failure to accomplish real change that its leaders say students will boycott the election unless they find a candidate who will support amending the Constitution.

"It is obvious that reform within the framework of the current Constitution is not possible," said Mehdi Aminzadeh, a member of the Office for Consolidating Unity, the top student movement. "It is time to call for a referendum on the Constitution."

So far, about a dozen people are running, and they tend to use the word reform, without specifying any.

The most discussed possible candidate is former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, 70, a political heavyweight who has hinted that he might enter the race to steer the country away from crisis. Analysts say he is awaiting a go-ahead from the supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - and for pre-election polls to forecast his chances. He suffered a humiliation in the parliamentary elections of 2001 when he failed to win enough votes.

Last week, he met with members of the Office for Consolidating Unity and said that if he ran, he would do so "with a new agenda that would be more compatible with the conditions and the needs of society." The students took this as a suggestion that he might opt for more moderate policies than his own in the past.

His supporters point to his international standing and flexibility with hardliners and advocates of change.

"We need somebody who has the authority to bring balance among the political factions in the country, and one who can ease relations with the outside world and the United States," said Saeed Leylaz, a journalist and political analyst in Tehran. "Mr. Rafsanjani cannot fix things overnight, but none of the other candidates can do these two tasks except for Mr. Rafsanjani."

The other candidates have lower profiles.

Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, 42, a former national police chief, portrays himself as a pragmatist and claims to have cut highway accidents. Tens of thousands die in Iran each year because of bad driving.

Ibrahim Asgharzadeh, 50, who was among the Iranians who stormed the American Embassy in Tehran in 1979, is running on a mandate to improve relations with the United States. "I am the one who had the courage to lock the gate of the U.S. embassy and put the key in my pocket," he said in an interview. "Only I can return it and fix relations."

Mehdi Karoubi, the former speaker of Parliament, is running as a moderate and has promised, if elected, to give about $60 a month, to every Iranian over the age of 18.