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Reformists shut out of run-off vote
What's at stake in Iran's election?

By Saman Sepehri | June 24, 2005 | Page 11

AMID RENEWED saber-rattling by the Bush administration, Iranians will go to the polls June 24 for a crucial presidential run-off vote. With no candidate in a field of seven getting 50 percent in the first round of voting on June 17, the run-off pits the favorite, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, against surprise second-place finisher Mahmud Ahmadinejad, the hard-line conservative mayor of Tehran.

Both candidates are from the conservative wing of Iran's ruling class, in contrast to the man they want to replace—current Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, the leader of the reformists. But Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad represent different wings of the conservative elite.

Rafsanjani, a former president, is the best-known figure of a new generation of "pragmatists" who have risen from the conservative ranks. They share with reformists like Khatami a desire to build a more modern society, with international market connections. They are even willing to loosen their ties with their old religious base. But unlike the reformists, they are not willing to loosen their control on the levers of power—to stabilize the Islamic regime through democratic reforms.

On the other hand, Ahmadinejad is a favorite of the religious right and the vigilante Basij militia, the volunteer force established by the former Ayatollah Khomeini after Iran's revolution in 1979 to fight in the Iran-Iraq War and crush internal dissent. His candidacy is seen as a bid by Iran's conservatives to challenge the more moderate Rafsanjani.

For his part, George W. Bush denounced the Iranian elections as a "futile exercise." Yet the 63 percent turnout was higher than any U.S. national election since 1960. Unlike the U.S. two-party system, Iran's elections gives a sense of the divisions within Iranian society and a glimpse of the real fights taking place over its direction.

The elections mark the end of Khatami's second term in office after landslide victories in 1997 and 2001. Under his rule, Iran has enjoyed a vibrant reform movement, which challenged the conservative clergy's monopoly on power and Islamic rule since 1979.

Khatami originally received mass popular support for his promises of democracy, liberalization and political reform. He was backed by a section of Iran's ruling class that sought to reintegrate Iran into the world, economically and politically—and to use the promise of democracy as a means to mobilize the population to break the conservatives' hold on the state and economy.

The reformers managed to seriously undermine enforcement of Islamic laws regarding women and dress codes, and forced an end to much of the censorship of the press.

However, the reformists haven't been able to deliver on their promises—particularly on economic issues affecting Iran's poor and working class. Khatami and his allies have seen their support dwindle dramatically over the past two years. In the first round of voting, the two reform candidates, Mostafa Moin and Mehdi Mahdavi-Karrubi, came in third and fifth.

Meanwhile, during Khatami's tenure, the conservatives used their control of Iran's Guardian Council, which has the power to approve all candidates and legislation, to block reforms passed by parliament and disqualify reform candidates, while mobilizing vigilantes to physically attack the reform movement's base—supporters among students and pro-reform journalists—on the streets.

In the face of this, Khatami and the reformists failed to put up a fight—producing demoralization among their supporters and fragmentation of the pro-democracy movement. Going into the election, many saw the reform movement as having reached its limits through electoral means. One backbone of the pro-reform parties, the student movement, even threatened to boycott the elections.

However, the defeat of the reformists over the past several years has not meant a return to the past. Social restrictions such as imposition of the veil and women's dress codes have been eroded and won't be easily re-imposed without the conservatives resorting to massive repression—which would only provoke an already restless population.

At the same time, Rafsanjani represents a section of moderate conservatives who see no need to re-impose social limitations to implement their neoliberal economic and political agenda. Rafsanjani has actually embraced more liberal attitudes toward how youth dress and conduct themselves—his election campaign featured pop music concerts—as a way of tapping into support from more affluent, less political young voters, who used to look to the reformist camp as the only avenue for more personal freedom.

The "pragmatists" among Iran's ruling elite are also open to reaching a deal with the U.S.—which has been hostile to Khatami and the reformists because of their warm relations with the European Union.

The right-wing faction of Iran's ruling elite has in the past relied heavily on invoking the rhetoric of the 1979 revolution and Islam. But today, this finds traction with only about 10 percent of the population—a fringe group large enough to terrorize student demonstrators or tip rigged elections, but not large enough to form a stable base. Ahmadinejad's candidacy was a shot across the bow by conservatives who are determined to remain on the political scene.

His surprise second-place finish produced numerous protests of fraud, intimidation and Basij interference in vote counting. The pro-reform Islamic Iran Participation Front and Islamic Revolution Mojahedin Organization released a statement warning that "a politico-military party [the Basij] has embarked on a campaign to monopolize power, and has decided to impose an individual [Ahmadinejad] on the nation as a president." The reform candidate Moin warned of "the danger of fascism." Because of this, most reformists are expected to throw their support behind Rafsanjani.

The past few years has seen the whole spectrum of Iranian politics moving to the left, with the grip of most conservative segments—the clergy in the Guardian Council and the hard-right vigilantes of the Basij—loosening. Khatami and the reformist opened the floodgates, and now sections of the conservatives led by Rafsanjani are moving towards liberalization and modernization.

But the hard right is determined to show that it still can mobilize its base, remaining a force to be reckoned with that cannot be marginalized. Whether orchestrated through fraud or not, Ahmadinejad's second-place finish is meant to act as a brake on Rafsanjani—a reminder that the "pragmatists" can't cut out the right completely, and that he should look to the conservatives and not the reformists in setting policy.

But there is a chance that the right could go too far—and try to impose Ahmadinejad as the next president. This would be a miscalculation that could set the stage for mass protests—and give new life to pro-reform, pro-democracy forces.

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