Selection -- not 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
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
me what he says were the secrets of Iran's campaign 2004.
"Everything you see here is a lie," said
wiry 34-year-old, who
asked that his real name not be used for fear of retribution. "I
you the real story."
Conservatives took control of Iran's parliament
this month following a
short, troubled political season during which many candidates were
from running by the conservative Council of Guardians. Though a
half of the electorate officially turned out to vote, the list
irregularities was considerable.
At some precincts on election day I personally witnessed
lining up at polls and pretending to vote when myself and other
"I think they awarded some of my votes to other
Nasseri, an independent liberal who failed to win a seat. "Based
campaign supporters' estimates, I thought I would receive 15,000
votes. Instead I had 500 votes. I'm very discouraged."
grumbled to me that schools and mosques were closed the day after
election, which they say was an unprecedented move that allowed
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
eve of elections, the reformist newspaper Yas-e-Now reported
on Feb. 17 that
the conservative-controlled city council distributed $3 million
discount coupons to Tehran teachers four days before the elections
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
barred thousands of candidates from running - would be posted to
Tehran's ballotboxes in an unprecedented move that worried other
"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
directives by influential conservative groups with government ties
Basij militia, which answers to Supreme Leader Khamenei, whose
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
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
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
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