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Iran prepares for decisive vote

By Guy Dinmore in Shiraz
Financial Times, London
May 3, 2000

Iranians will vote on Friday in the second and final round of parliamentary elections that will determine whether the conservatives, heavily defeated by reformists in the first stage, can secure enough seats to block crucial legislation.

Under Iran's electoral system, the ballot will take place in 66 of the 290 constituencies where the leading candidate failed to win more than 25 per cent of the vote.

Reformists are complaining of foul play after the conservative-controlled judiciary closed down nearly all the liberal newspapers that played a major role in informing and galvanising voters in the first round of elections held on February 18.

A low turnout on Friday could benefit conservative candidates who can depend on a core of supporters to go to the polls.

A mortar attack on central Tehran on Monday night, widely blamed on the Iraqi-based Militant Peoples Mujahideen Organisation (MKO), has fuelled the tense atmosphere in the city. The MKO, which opposes clerical rule in the Islamic Republic, has negligible support within Iran but its third mortar attack in the capital this year could keep voters away from polling stations.

The conservative opponents of President Mohammad Khatami lost their majority in the Majlis, Iran's parliament, after the first ballot. However, if they are able to secure a total of one-third of the seats at Friday's election, it would allow them to stage walk-outs that would deprive the assembly of the two-thirds quorum it needs to pass laws.

The outcome is likely to be close and has been complicated by the fact that the hardline Council of Guardians, which supervises the polls, has annulled the results of nine seats won by reformists in the first round and not yet ratified the results for the 30 seats contested in Tehran.

The Council is still recounting votes in Tehran and says it has found substantial irregularities. The controversy centres on Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president and top conservative candidate, who according to the initial count came 30th behind 29 reformists.

The Council has stated it will not nullify the results for all 30 seats but could still cancel several more seats that would stay vacant until by-elections to be held after five months. The next Majlis should have had 290 seats but after the cancellation of results for nine seats already, and possibly more to come in Tehran, it will for the time being have 281 at most. This means the conservatives are hoping to win a total of at least 94 seats. In the first round they secured just under 50 while reformists won about 118 with independents taking some 20.

With Iran's party system still in its infancy, political affiliations are uncertain and the conservatives could win the support of some independents and a even a few of what are known in Iran as the "old left" among the reformists.

A close result is expected in the southern city of Shiraz where Ahmad Azimi, the candidate of the main reformist party, Mosharekat, faces Samed Raja, a former mayor and "independent conservative" close to Mr Rafsanjani.

In separate interviews Mr Azimi condemned the closure of the reformist newspapers and the scant coverage given to the polls by state television, under the control of hardliners. "Naturally turnout will be lower" he said. Mr Raja defended the media crackdown and a recent ruling issued by the powerful Expediency Council, headed by Mr Rafsanjani, which will block parliament from supervising institutions controlled by hardliners, including the armed forces, broadcast media and certain business conglomerates.

The new parliament should convene on May 27. But the recent counter-attack by conservatives, including the jailing of leading reformist journalists and Irans most prominent civil rights lawyer, has raised fears that a way will be found to stop the new assembly from meeting at all.

President Khatami expressed those worries in a strong attack on the conservatives in a speech marking Labour Day. "The people have elected their candidates and they are right to count every moment before the next Majlis starts," he said.


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