In election about turnout, results are murky in Iran

State-run media boast of high participation, but reformists expect decline

February 21, 2004|By Kim Barker | Kim Barker,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

TEHRAN, Iran - In an election with little suspense, Iranians who voted yesterday said they wanted to support the Islamic Republic, send conservatives back into power and, in some cases, get stamps on their identification cards.

The main battle in this parliamentary election was fought over turnout, not candidates. Reformists urged people to stay away from the polls to show their displeasure with a system that disqualified 2,500 potential candidates, mostly reformists.

But the country's leadership repeatedly urged people to vote to show their disgust with their enemies - primarily the United States - and their love for the Islamic Revolution and Iran.

"It's important to show the world and the foreigners that we are still loyal, that we are not disappointed with our leaders or with our country," said Mohammad Dehestani, who spent 40 minutes carefully filling out his ballot yesterday morning. "We always will stay with this revolution."

It was impossible to determine actual voter turnout, or to determine how many may have cast blank ballots as a form of protest.

Iranian-controlled media broadcast a steady stream of reports of long lines and polling stations running out of ballots. Radio reporters announced that they talked to foreign journalists shocked by the number of people voting. TV played patriotic music and showed clips of happy voters.

"Tell your country people are standing in lines," said Ali Sadeghi, a head inspector of the Interior Ministry, standing in the middle of a mosque with lines stretching out the door. "These people are not forced to do this."

Some polling places, chiefly famous mosques with TV cameras, were packed, with up to 200 people inside at a given time. Others had more election workers than voters.

Analysts have said that turnout will probably be lower than in 2000, when 67 percent of eligible people voted. Results will not be available for several days.

This election could mean an end to the reforms promised by Mohammad Khatami, elected president in 1997. In 2000, reformists won control of parliament for the first time since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

But few reforms have been adopted, often stymied by the hard-line Guardian Council, an appointed 12-member body that screens legislation and candidates.

Many people have been disappointed and have blamed reformists and Khatami for failing to achieve change.

This year, the Guardian Council disqualified most of the leading reformists as candidates, including 80 sitting members of parliament. Of the candidates remaining, most were conservative. Reformists launched a campaign asking people not to vote.

Yesterday evening, the office manager for the largest reform party, the Islamic Iran Participation Front, said turnout was higher than in last year's Tehran municipal elections, when 12 percent of eligible people voted. But still, "the atmosphere was cold."

President Khatami, who once said this election was unfair, this week urged people to vote. After voting, he told reporters that many people were participating.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's supreme leader, said voters showed the world what they thought, even after calls to stay away from the polls.

"I do not think these enthusiastic young people will be prevented from fulfilling their duty," he said.

Voting, scheduled for 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., was extended several times because people demanded it, according to the radio. But at one polling station in the central area, only three people were filling out ballots at 6 p.m.

Although many people said they voted because it was their duty, some voted because they worried about their future. Several cast blank ballots so they could get a voting stamp on their identification cards. This stamp is seen as necessary by some to travel and find good jobs.

"We have to vote, for jobs, to continue our education," said Babak, 21, who did not want to give his last name.

Other people decided to skip the election.

Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, who won the peace prize last year, did not vote. Neither did an election monitor from the governor's office watching over a crowded mosque nor a power-lifting referee eating lunch nor a police officer directing traffic. At the only food court in the city, 19 out of 20 people sitting at a coffee shop said they did not vote.

"Why should we?" said Ali, 36. "There's no reason."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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