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Voters in Iran back presidential reforms
Now the challenge: to fuse democracy and theocracy

The Guardian (London)
May 17, 2000

TEHRAN -- IN SMALL towns and Iran 's biggest cities, reformists offering wider freedoms under an Islamic system defeated hardliners in more than half the parliamentary seats for which election results were determined yesterday.

The outcome promises to have a profound influence on a country struggling to emerge from a period of theocracy while remaining true to its faith.

If the trend continues, as appears likely, the reformists will oust hardliners from the 290-seat parliament for the first time since the 1979 Islamic revolution put clerics in charge of the country.

A reformist victory would be a vindication of the social and political reforms program of President Mohammad Khatami, a moderate cleric who has tried to change Iran 's image of a fundamentalist nation even as it remains under Islamic laws.

Reformers were poised for a decisive victory in Tehran, to end the conservative establishment's hold on a major centre of power.

The poll on Friday was seen as a referendum on Khatami's programme for government accountability, a civil society based on the rule of law and a political system with a true separation of powers. Now millions of voters have handed him the mandate he desperately sought, a monumental challenge awaits him: to construct an Islamic system compatible with democracy.

This fusion between a theocracy, in which Islamic law is the basis of the constitution, and a political system that resembles Western democracy has been the goal of reformist clerics for more than 30 years. They have been hoping since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that such a marriage between these two systems could develop.

But conservative clerics have blocked their way in order to retain a monopoly on religious interpretation and power.

By voting for Khatami's political group, Islamic Iran Participation Front, a majority of Iran 's 38.7 million eligible voters sent a message to the conservatives that they reject the way they govern.

Now Iran has the chance to create a new model that could provide inspiration for the entire Muslim world. In the run-up to the poll Khatami called it 'a day of destiny'.

Enthusiastic voters, too, seemed to realise the significance of the moment. They queued for hours in Tehran to cast their ballots in mosques, schools and community centres.

Once inside, they hunched over the complicated ballot papers, trying to select 30 candidates from among hundreds of names. Across the country about 5,700 candidates competed for 290 parliamentary seats.

'This is the fairest election we've ever had. This time the people elected may actually be able to change things,' said Hasan Mohammadi, 63, as he voted in south Tehran, a traditionalist stronghold.

With 117 seats declared, Khatami's coalition had claimed 49, conservatives 14 and independents around 24.

Voters appeared to reject former two-term president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the conservative establishment's star candidate.

'The word was out in my neighbourhood not to vote for Rafsanjani,' said one government worker. 'He had his chance.'

A reformist majority in parliament will allow Khatami to introduce more liberal legislation.

Greater freedom for the Press will be one of the first developments, a direct response to past censorship of progressive newspapers and imprisonment of editors who criticised the religious establishment.

With a parliament which is aligned with his own political agenda Khatami must now meet the demands of a society eager for democracy and greater liberalisation.


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