Sunday Herald - 22 February 2004
Hardliners tighten grip on Iran after election ends hopes of reform
Newspapers were closed, liberal candidates were banned
was there ever any doubt over Irans election? From Dan De Luce in Tehran
Irans experiment with reform officially ended last week after the theocratic leadership orchestrated a conservative takeover of the parliament. Reformists and dissidents are bracing themselves for hard times
In a country that mixes religion and politics in equal measure, it seemed fitting that mosques were converted into polling places in Irans elections on Friday.
Voting began early at the turquoise-tiled mosque on Resaalat Square, where women in black chadors and old men holding prayer beads scanned a list of more than 1000 candidates posted on the wall.
Hundreds of names were missing from the list, including those of many sitting MPs. They were disqualified by one of the theocracys most powerful bodies, the Guardian Council, which ruled that more than 2000 reformist candidates lacked loyalty to Islam and the constitution.
Holding her blue-and-white ballot paper, Zahra, 32, said she wasnt bothered that the conservatives were running essentially unopposed. These elections are free and fair. Those who are criticising are those who have betrayed the revolution, she said.
Zahra said she had chosen the main conservative group, Builders of an Islamic Iran, because it stood for Islamic principles.
The theocratic leadership relies on Zahra and other members of a small but militant minority to support the system, attending state-organised rallies and turning out to vote in an orchestrated election. Some are true believers; some are state employees or businessmen who go along to get along.
The chasm between the hardline minority, who accept a rigid interpretation of Islam, and the rest of society plays out as a perpetual culture war.
A group of young men stood waiting for a bus only a few yards away from the mosque-turned-polling-place. When one of them spoke, it seemed as though he was light years away from the people arriving to vote.
Theres no democracy here. This has all been planned in advance, said Darius, 21, speaking quietly to avoid trouble with the police and security agents at the polling station. Ive never heard of any of these people who are running. If there were some candidates that I knew who would do something for us, I would vote.
All of us hope this regime will fall. I would do anything to help change this regime, he said.
Ignoring appeals to vote from the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Darius and his mates were escaping their noisy, working-class district for a day of walking in the mountains above Tehran.
Four years ago, young voters waited in long queues to cast their ballots for reformist candidates who promised democratic change . They believed the parliament would carry out the vision of President Mohammad Khatami, who proposed nudging the theocracy forward through what he called religious democracy.
His experiment was snuffed out at the outset. One of his senior advisers was shot and seriously wounded. A brief flourishing of press freedom was crushed as the hard-line judiciary shut down one paper after another. Once elected, reformists saw their initiatives vetoed by the Guardian Council, the same body that knocked them off the ballot for this election.
Khatami tried to steer a gradual course and settle for modest gains, but the conservative establishment merely exploited his conciliatory nature.
He tried to play an intermediary role. But because of the polarisation thats occurred between reformists and conservatives, there is no room to be an intermediary any more, said one reformist, who asked not to be named.
One should choose that way or this way. There is no third way.
Reformist MPs have moved away from Khatami and are now openly accusing the supreme leader, whose wields near-absolute power, of authoritarian rule.
Looking weary on election day, Khatami offered characteristically oblique criticism of the religious establishment. This nation has been defeated many times but continued its path and created surprises.
The idea that democracy and theo cracy could coexist has been thoroughly discredited. Though the ref ormist experiment had effectively been defeated long before, the election was a kind of burial for Khatamis project.
The elderly men who preside over the theocracy have made it clear there will be no democratic evolution on their watch. It is a sobering message for Iran and all those in the Middle East who had hoped Khatami might open a new era in the Islamic world.
The reformists who sparked lively debate in parliament will be replaced by obscure, obedient figures hand-picked by conservatives to serve as their proxies. In campaign literature they are presented as experts who will solve the everyday problems of Iranians.
Employment is the most important thing and were going to tackle that in a serious way, said Hassan Moqabessi, a spokesman for the Builders of Iran, which enjoys the patronage of powerful conservatives. The reformists forgot about a lot of things. They forgot about the economy, about health care, about higher education.
This is not the first time critical voices have been silenced in Iran. But the reformists were by no means outsiders. They had deep roots in the revolution, the clergy and the political families that have dominated Iran since the Shah was overthrown 25 years ago. Some are war veterans, others spent time in the Shahs prisons. By crushing these insiders, the theocracy has alienated valuable partners who were prepared to work within the system.
Khatamis cabinet will be next on the hit-list. Reformist MPs expect the new parliament, which doesnt take power for another three months, to pile pressure on the interior ministry and the culture ministry two areas where the conservatives accuse the reformists of being too lax.
Although it had little power, the outgoing parliament served as an outlet for criticism and discussion. Now that outlet has been cut off, pressures from different quarters will begin mounting.
Inflation and unemployment are threa tening to spiral out of control. The younger generation is chafing at restrictions on social freedom. With the reformists ousted, blame will fall solely on the conservatives shoulders.
On the international front, Iran is again facing tough questions about its nuclear programme. The UNs nuclear watchdog has found that Iran had a more sophisticated uranium enrichment technology that it had admitted. The deal that the conservative leadership brokered with Britain, France and Germany last October may yet unravel.
As for the defeated reformists, they speak of carrying on their cause through grass-roots efforts and forging ties to secular liberals. But at a press conference yesterday after the election, the leaders of the main reformist party, the Participation Front, sounded adrift, still struggling to find a footing.
Leaving nothing to chance, the judiciary shut down the two most important reformist newspapers, Sharq and Yas-e No, two days before the vote. Both papers had published excerpts from a scathing letter from MPs accusing the supreme leader of trampling on the rights of the people.
Some reformists worry that the newspaper closures represent an ominous sign of things to come. They are bracing themselves for a bleak era ahead.
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