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Reformers decry Tehran election ruling

By Jonathan Lyons

TEHRAN, May 21 (Reuters) - Reformers have challenged final election results released at the weekend by hardline clerical watchdogs, clouding parliamentary polls once hailed as the freest and fairest in Iran 's history.

Supporters of moderate President Mohammad Khatami on Sunday denounced a decision by a hardline oversight board to invalidate 25 percent of the almost three million votes cast on February 18 for Tehran's 30 seats in the new parliament.

The decision on Saturday by the Guardian Council to approve 28 new MPs and set run-offs for the other two places ended a bitter stalemate over the final results.

But it cast a shadow over President Khatami's drive for a civil society under the rule of law.

"The reasoning of the Guardian Council was the worst and most worrying in the past 21 years," pro-reform cleric Rasoul Montajabnia told the daily Bahar, after being dropped from 27th place into a run-off contest to be held later.

"In these elections they behaved in the worst possible manner towards the votes and views of the people," Montajabnia said.

Besides the annulment of 726,000 votes, reformers also questioned the rise of ex-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani - the top conservative in the race - into 20th place. First results had Rafsanjani in 30th place.

The Guardian Council, dominated by hardline clerics, also promoted a second conservative ahead of pro-Khatami rivals to claim the final first-round seat.


Nationwide, reformers swept aside hardline incumbents and captured a solid plurality of seats in the expanded 290-member parliament, set to convene on May 27.

Western governments celebrated the initial results, and the United States launched a new diplomatic initiative pegged in large measure to the reformists' electoral success.

However, the bitter struggle between the government and the Guardians over the tally in the capital, the country's political centre of gravity, has taken some of the lustre off that victory.

Deputy Interior Minister Mostafa Tajzadeh, in charge of the nationwide polls, dismissed the Council's allegations of fraud and said the out-going conservative parliament had tightened election rules to prevent irregularities.

"Taking into account all the laws passed in the months before the elections, the possibility of mistakes in the sixth parliamentary polls was a fraction of that in the past," Tajzadeh, an influential reformist, told reporters.

He also questioned why preliminary results, approved shortly after the vote by representatives of the Guardian Council, were later altered so radically. And he blasted conservatives for the last-minute veto of a plan to automate the vote count.

After a number of false starts, the Guardian Council approved the capital's votes only after supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei intervened to break the deadlock.

Concerned that the new parliament might be forced to meet without the influential Tehran delegation, he directed the Council to discard the contents of disputed ballot boxes and base its final results on the remaining votes.

Throughout the controversy, the Guardian Council defended its decision to order three separate recounts as consistent with its obligation to ensure against voter fraud.

But pro-reform commentators and politicians say the exercise was designed to boost the standing of the veteran Rafsanjani, battered badly in the initial results, and to deprive several radical reformers of their rightful seats.



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