Iran's reformists hope for apathy among voters

Low turnout in election could be seen as protest against hard-line clerics

February 20, 2004|By Kim Barker | Kim Barker,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

TEHRAN, Iran - The election in Iran today is not really about who wins or loses. It's about how many people play the game.

Reformists boycotting the parliamentary election say they will claim victory if people stay away from the polls and characterize the vote as a referendum on the Islamic Republic of Iran.

But candidates and conservatives insist people will cast their ballots happily. They contend the reformists have been ineffective during their four years of controlling parliament.

"Most of them were from the same line of thought, but they were fighting all the time," candidate Nafiseh Fayazbakhsh said. "What people want is for someone to solve their problems."

Across the city yesterday, campaign posters hung from trees, bushes and billboards. Candidates claimed that they were "from the people," "of the people" or "with the people." A psychologist said she wanted to see women involved. An engineer said he was creative and dynamic. A man who had worked with young people for 30 years proclaimed that he had no slogan.

But there also were worrisome signs.

On Wednesday night, authorities closed the two major reformist newspapers in Tehran, most likely because both published excerpts of a bitter letter that reformists wrote to the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, criticizing him for his role in the election dispute.

And judiciary agents searched and closed an election-monitoring office of the main reformist party, the Islamic Participation Front. The group's headquarters continued to operate

Ever since the Islamic Revolution ousted the U.S.-supported shah in 1979, Iran's leaders have encouraged voting. Most people have responded.

But in the last three years, many Iranians have been disappointed. Promised reforms did not happen. The Guardian Council, an appointed hard-line body that screens legislation and political candidates, often blocked potential reforms.

Disappointed and apathetic, only 12 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in municipal elections in Tehran last year. Conservatives were swept to power.

And this year, conservatives are poised to regain parliament.

In January, the Guardian Council disqualified 2,500 potential parliamentary candidates, mostly reformists. Almost half the parliament resigned in protest, and many reformists announced plans to boycott the election. Most of the remaining candidates are considered to be conservatives.

Instead of campaigning for votes, reformists have been campaigning for apathy. Mohammad Reza Khatami, leader of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, said he would consider a turnout of less than 50 percent a success.

"If it's more than that, it means our voice is not heard by the people," Khatami said.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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