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Selection -- not election
The list of election irregularities was considerable

By Borzou Daragahi
February 27, 2004

Tehran -- The candidate was dull, cautious and watery, and his grotesque campaign extravaganza failed to draw any potential voters, other than his cousins.

But his campaign aide was nervous and talkative. And, perhaps guilty for having taken part in a campaign he never believed in, he was anxious to give me what he says were the secrets of Iran's campaign 2004.

"Everything you see here is a lie," said Morteza, a wiry 34-year-old, who asked that his real name not be used for fear of retribution. "I will tell you the real story."

Conservatives took control of Iran's parliament this month following a short, troubled political season during which many candidates were barred from running by the conservative Council of Guardians. Though a little over half of the electorate officially turned out to vote, the list of election irregularities was considerable.

At some precincts on election day I personally witnessed people suddenly lining up at polls and pretending to vote when myself and other reporters showed up.

"I think they awarded some of my votes to other candidates," said Homa Nasseri, an independent liberal who failed to win a seat. "Based on my campaign supporters' estimates, I thought I would receive 15,000 to 20,000 votes. Instead I had 500 votes. I'm very discouraged."

Some grumbled to me that schools and mosques were closed the day after the election, which they say was an unprecedented move that allowed authorities to replace ballot boxes.

In the run-up to the elections the country's newspapers reported a stream of irregularities. Before it was shut down by the rightwing judiciary on the eve of elections, the reformist newspaper Yas-e-Now reported on Feb. 17 that the conservative-controlled city council distributed $3 million worth of discount coupons to Tehran teachers four days before the elections in an attempt "to persuade Tehran citizens to vote for their candidates."

The centrist, government-controlled Iran reported on Feb. 16 that 3,200 observers from the Council of Guardians - the same hardline watchdog that barred thousands of candidates from running - would be posted to guard Tehran's ballotboxes in an unprecedented move that worried other inspection observers.

"This number of observers is unnecessary," a source told the paper. "We believe this will interfere with the work of the executives." Other critics told me that many voters simply cast ballots according to directives by influential conservative groups with government ties like the Basij militia, which answers to Supreme Leader Khamenei, whose son-in-law's political group took control of the parliament.

"The rightwingers just declare that the Basijis have recommended these candidates," said Mohammad Hossein Salavati, an independent candidate in Mashad. "And the rightwingers say, 'It's our duty to vote for these candidates.' There's no thinking or research."

Meanwhile conservative clerics, many of whom owe their posts to Khamenei, used their pulpits to call on people to vote. A week before the vote Ayatollah Mohsen Mojtahed-Shabestari, Tabriz's prayer Leader, said voting was a "religious duty" while Ayatollah Mohieddin Haeri of Shiraz, went a step further, asking people to vote for those who believe in clerical rule.

Many pious elderly people, who had vowed not to vote, changed their minds after their favorite ayatollah announced it was a sin to boycott the polls.

During the campaign, candidates took ads out in newspapers, plastered walls with posters and gone out onto the streets to press the flesh with prospective voters, in a burst of campaign activity following a political crisis over who could run in elections.

But Morteza, the campaign manager, told me much of this, too was all for show, funded by the same forces who sabotaged a reform movement begun by the election of President Mohammad Khatami in 1997. Other reporters throughout the country told me that many addresses for campaign headquarters led to empty offices devoid of activity.

"It wasn't an election," Morteza said. "It was a selection."

The wedding salon that doubled as his candidate's campaign headquarters, Morteza says, cost $400 a night, more than two months salary for most Iranians. But it was loaned to him by a powerful religious foundation that answers only to Khamenei. The head of the same religious foundation personally called the candidate, a manager of a company owned by the foundation, and asked him to run a liberal campaign, Morteza said.

"In his heart, he didn't even want to run," Morteza said. "He was forced to run by the rightwingers. Whether he wins or loses, he already knows that he's lost."

Other candidates include the employees of companies run by rightwing organizations and the young relatives of hardliners - some of them boasting degrees from "England" and the "University of Hawaii" in their ads. They, too, he said had also been pressed into running.

"It's the mafia," Morteza said. "You can't say 'no' to the mafia."

A small business owner, Morteza came up with a strategy to lure young people to his candidate's cause. He came up with a catchy political gimmick: a sign with the words "political arguments" scratched out.

To appeal to young voters attracted more to the aesthetics of the west than the Taliban-lite look favored by the clerical regime and its supporters, Morteza got a bunch of his relatives to shave their faces, wear neckties and stand oustide the salon. He hired women to wear nail polish and headscarves with their hair peaking out. He put up signs touting the candidates's name in English and boasting a website.

"I wanted to appeal to young people," the candidate himself told me.

On that particular evening, however, no young people showed up, heartening Morteza. "We've gotten too smart," he said. "We're tired of this whole game."

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