Iranian Clerics Urge Big Turnout in Leadership Vote
Karl Vick, The Washington Post:
From the pulpit, the ayatollah urged a massive turnout at polling places two weeks from Friday, when Iran will elect a new president. "Our enemies, especially the United States, are saying that the fewer people show up at the election, the less powerful the state will be," said Ayatollah Emami Kashani, addressing several thousand worshipers at Friday prayers. READ MORE
Some reform advocates, however, have called for a boycott of the balloting, a move they contend would highlight the need for fundamental change in a system whose top leaders are unelected.
Profoundly disappointed by the pace of progress during the two four-year terms of President Mohammad Khatami, the reformists say it's no longer worth trying to change Iran's theocratic system from within.
Kashani, a white-bearded cleric whose own senior position was never on a public ballot, is a symbol of the system. He holds a seat on the Expediency Council, one of three appointive bodies that outrank the presidency in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Those elite bodies, each dominated by unelected clerics, answer only to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
As Supreme Leader of the Revolution, Khamenei is at the pinnacle of authority in theocratic Iran, with powers as superlative as his title.
"He has been elected by God," Mohebali Darabie, 56, said of Khamenei from his usher's post at the rear of the pavilion where Kashani addressed the graying faithful. "It's not the people who are electing him."
And that, according to the system's critics, is the basic problem.
"The free election we have here is a mere play, because we've got a person at the top who has absolute power," said Akbar Ganji, a reformist leader just freed from five years in prison. Ganji spoke in his modestly furnished living room, looking vibrant if a bit thin from the hunger strike that preceded his release Monday.
"What I am saying is our priority should be an election for the [supreme] leader," Ganji said. "He's been ruling for 16 years, and he's got a life term. This is not compatible with democratic values. The era of rulers for life is over. Sixteen years is enough for him."
Ganji, a sociologist and journalist jailed after he uncovered the state's role in the murders of prominent reformists, stands out among Iranian activists urging a boycott of the June 17 election.
"I believe boycotting the election will delegitimize the system as a whole," he said. His view is shared by other recently released political prisoners and the most prominent group of student activists, the Office for Fostering Unity.
"We need a referendum on the system," said Mohsen Sazegara, a reformist serving as a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "All our efforts must be toward a new constitution."
But talk of boycott concerns others besides Iran's hard-line conservatives, who plainly crave a turnout high enough to be framed as endorsement of their continued rule.
Since polls show a solid majority of Iranians favoring change, low turnout also stands to hamper the prospects of the reformist ticket on the ballot -- a ticket that also supports a referendum to make over Iran's constitution.
"The conditions for such a referendum should be prepared," said Javad Emam, a senior official in the campaign of Mustafa Moin, a former minister for higher education who has emerged as the most prominent reformist candidate. "We need to be inside the system and push the present progress forward, to the point where people can decide whatever they want."
What the people want, in terms of government, is not yet known. But Ganji's demand for election of the supreme leader strikes at the heart of the Iranian system, established in the constitution that was approved in a 1981 referendum.
That document enshrined the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as supreme leader, ruling as the agent of the messianic Imam Mehdi, who disappeared in the 9th century and whose return many Shiite Muslims believe will signal the day of judgment.
But enthusiasm for a system that puts total trust in the rule of clerics declined steadily after Khomeini, whose 1989 death Iranians will observe in a public holiday on Saturday. Young Iranians, who now account for two-thirds of the electorate, swept Khatami into office in 1997 in part because of his promise to reduce rigid religious oversight of personal lives. But the mild-mannered former librarian's efforts to expand executive powers were thwarted by the appointed mullahs.
The clerics also used their authority to shutter more than 100 newspapers and last year disqualified most reformists from running in parliamentary elections. This year, appointed clerics disqualified Moin from running for president, only to be overruled by Khamenei.
The decision to allow Moin to run may enliven a moribund race. Polls show the field of seven candidates is led by Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a wealthy businessman invariably described as "pragmatic." Rafsanjani's long, checkered history includes two terms as president.
Moin, who enjoys a squeaky-clean reputation and good relations with student activists, is being marketed "as a symbol of progressive reform," Emam said. Moin's running mate is President Khatami's younger, bolder brother, Mohammad Reza Khatami, who this week was quoted as saying, "In our country we have two power structures, and preserving the democratic one is a major step toward establishing democracy."
Four of the five remaining candidates are conservatives, including Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the hard-line mayor of Tehran elected two years ago when barely 10 percent of voters turned out and the conservatives' small base carried the day.
On Friday, Ahmadinejad left weekly prayers at the leafy University of Tehran campus in a small scrum of supporters chanting, "Greetings to the Prophet! Here comes the real follower of the Leader!" The group pushed through the crowd of mostly middle-age worshipers -- few young people attend Friday prayers in the capital -- and a vendor peddling CDs promising to unveil the corruption of the reformists.
"We want to make a good impression so that other nations know what path to take," Ahmadinejad told the throng. "This is the Prophet's promise. This is what will happen. There will be a global state of Islam."
As the scrum moved off, an old man shouted, "Pray for him! This is the most effective weapon we have. Just pray, and he will become our president."