Iranian Conservatives Win Big on Small Turnout
Sat February 21, 2004 05:53 AM ET
TEHRAN (Reuters) - Partial results from Iran's disputed parliamentary election showed Islamic conservatives hostile to President Mohammad Khatami's liberal reforms cruising to an expected victory on Saturday on a sharply lower turnout.
Interior Ministry figures showed conservatives had won 43 of the first 83 constituencies declared, out of 289 seats contested on Friday, an analyst at the Parliamentary Research Center said.
Reformists had won 21, and the rest went to independents of unknown sympathies. In 17 constituencies where no candidate polled more than 25 percent, there will be a run-off later.
Reformists branded the election rigged and many boycotted it after the unelected hard-line Guardian Council banned 2,500 mainly reformist candidates, including 80 sitting lawmakers, prompting Washington to say the vote was neither free nor fair.
A conservative majority could spell an end to Khatami's seven-year experiment in allowing greater freedom of speech and loosening Islamic cultural and social restrictions, a drive that hard-liners have tried to obstruct at every turn.
But conservative commentator Amir Mohebian, a policy adviser to Iran's senior clerical leaders, suggested the victors would use a velvet glove rather than an iron fist.
The new majority would usher in a second phase of reforms, implemented more effectively, he said, as attempts to impose a political and social crackdown would only generate a backlash.
But political analyst Hossein Rassam forecast an escalation of factional conflict.
"The reformists are aware that the conservatives will try to make deals with the European Union and will try to prevent this by being outspoken about the state of democracy in Iran," he told Reuters. "This will antagonize the hard-liners and will lead to arrests, the closure of more newspapers and so on."
SATAN'S PLOTS FOILED
The Interior Ministry issued no overall turnout figure but a senior government official told Reuters between 20 and 22 million of the 46 million eligible voters had cast ballots.
The lowest previous turnout for a parliamentary election since the 1979 Islamic Revolution was 53 percent in 1980.
The clerical Guardian Council, which vets candidates and validates the results, gave a lower figure of 43 million for the electorate, which could enable it to claim a turnout of over 50 percent, a psychologically important threshold.
A Council statement said that by voting in large numbers Iranians had "foiled all the plots and plans of the enemies of religion and the nation, including the Great Satan, America."
Iran's clerical rulers tapped a deep vein of nationalism and suspicion of foreign interference among many Iranians to boost the turnout and endorse the legitimacy of the Islamic system.
The lower participation reflected apathy and disillusionment with Khatami's reformers as much as calls for a boycott.
Both the United States and the European Union voiced concern on Friday at the conduct of the poll, particularly the mass exclusion of reformist candidates.
"These actions do not represent free and fair elections and are not consistent with international norms," State Department spokesman Adam Ereli told reporters.
But conservative ex-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was quick to assert that Iran had a better turnout than the United States, where a president who won only 25 percent of the popular vote had entered the White House on the ruling of a court.
The main reformist party, led by Khatami's brother Mohammad Reza, and the main pro-reform student movement boycotted the poll. In Tehran, where their support is strongest, a government source said turnout was 1.7 million or 29 percent.
But a Guardian Council supervisor, Ahmad Azimzadeh, gave a higher turnout figure of 2.3 to 2.4 million in the capital.
Under the Iranian constitution, the government does not have to resign after parliamentary elections. But the new assembly, which features many former deputies from the 1990s, may try to impeach Khatami's more liberal ministers, as it did in 1999.
A conservative majority would leave Khatami to serve out his final 16 months in office isolated in a state apparatus in which hard-liners already control the armed forces, Islamic militias, the judiciary and supervisory watchdogs.
Hard-line prosecutors this week closed down two of the last surviving pro-reform newspapers, an office of the main reformist party and its news Web Site -- all for reporting a critical letter to Khamenei by the disbarred deputies. (Additional reporting by Parinoosh Arami and Paul Hughes)
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