Saturday, June 18, 2005

Boycott hits Iranian election

Colin Freeman, The Scotsman:
COUNTING began in Iran's presidential elections last night, with low turnouts at some polling stations suggesting that calls for a boycott by pro-reformers had had some effect.

In the wealthy suburbs of northern Tehran, where opposition to the country's theocracy is strongest, some polling stations closed with only a fraction of their ballot papers used.

Pro-reform candidates had urged voters to cast their ballots regardless, fearing that a mass boycott could give the appearance of an enhanced majority for their conservative rivals.

But simmering anger at the vetoing of candidates by clerics on the country's all-powerful guardian council looked set to bring about a repeat of last year's parliamentary contests, when turnout dwindled to just above 50 per cent.

As the polls closed last night, the clear favourite remained Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, a 70-year-old cleric and former hardliner who has sold himself as a pragmatic conservative.

Using a combination of "poacher-turned-gamekeeper" tactics, he has built an unlikely powerbase among the nation's youth, who believe that only an insider is now capable of enacting real change.

Over the past decade, more openly reformist politicians have had their modernising programmes stymied by the mullahs.

None of the seven candidates, however, is expected to get the 50 per cent support needed to win outright, meaning the top two will likely meet in a runoff vote within the next two weeks.

Other main contenders are Mostafa Moin, a reform-minded former education minister, and Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a former policeman and hardline conservative.

Whoever wins will have a tough job. As well as managing the demands of a population increasingly chafing against clerical rule, there are crucial diplomatic issues: in particular Iran's much-condemned nuclear ambitions, and relations with the US-sponsored democracies in neighbouring Iraq and Afghanistan.

In an attempt to undermine the boycott, Iran's unelected ruler, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called on the nation's 41 million voters to turn out to prove that the country is a working democracy.

But at a polling station in a school in Vasnak, an affluent suburb of northern Tehran, only 150 voters had arrived by mid-afternoon. "We have been given 1,000 ballot papers, so it seems the turn-out has been a lot lower than expected," said Mohsen Jannati, the school's headmaster, who supervised the voting.

"This is because it is not a democratic system and people have stayed at home as a result. I will not be voting myself either, as long as the guardian council filters the candidates that we are allowed to choose."

However, in the southern suburb of Shahreh-Rey, a working-class district composed of miles of high-rise slums, the polls did brisk business. READ MORE

Voters put in a surprise show of support for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a little-known figure until he was chosen by hardliners as Tehran's mayor last year.

Security forces across Iran were on high alert after a wave of bombings killed eight people in the southern city of Ahvaz, but as of last night all seemed calm. Results are due today.
This is one of the few reports that thus far have reported low turnouts. It is amazing to me that the mainstream media hasn't demanded more proof of the official figures being reported or at least qualifying the reported totals are those released by the government.