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The ballot box
Majlis elections mark new era

Written and Photographed by Dokhi Fassihian
February 21, 2000
The Iranian

There is excitement on the streets of Tehran. Democracy has arrived with a vengeance. All over town, people are talking about the latest results of Friday's vote and making predictions for the final makeup of Iran's sixth Majles. In taxis, homes, restaurants, and parties, politics rules supreme. (See photos of Majlis election day by Dokhi Fassihian here)

In a stunning victory, reformists belonging to the Islamic Iran Participation Front (pro-Khatami factions) have swept Tehran, Mashad, Esfehan and Shiraz and other major cities. Following in second place are independent candidates, and coming in last with a small minority are the conservatives.

Displaying a suprisingly poor performance is Chairman of the Expediency Council and former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Conservatives hoped that he would return as the Speaker of the Majlis and hold back the reformists. In fact, Rafsanjani's bottom ranking after the vote count was a huge embarrassment. He was the only candidate given special permission by the conservative-dominated Majles to keep his position while running on the conservative ticket for Tehran. All other candidate were required to resign from their official postions.

It is still not clear whether Rafsanjani will squeeze in enough votes to guarantee him a seat in the Majles, but as far as the public is concerened, he is history. Rafsanjani is highly unpopular among Tehran's residents, who went to the polls in massive numbers to keep him out of the Majles. "I am voting to keep the likes of Rafsanjani out!" a shop owner exclaimed. "This is my main reason for voting."

"He should be ashamed of himself," a cab driver ranted about Rafsanjani. "It is so tacky of him to run again, after all of the positions he's held. He is making a fool of himself and the conservatives tricked him. [Majlis Speaker] Nateq-Nouri, on the other hand, was smart. He knew he wouldn't win, so he didn't run."

The same cab driver told me that this was only his second time voting and that he was voting for reformists supporting President Khatami. "I voted for Khatami, many people did. Since I felt it made a difference, I'm voting again."

Friday's elections were truy historic. Election officials estimate that a whopping 83% of eligible voters participated in the parliamentary elections -- the largest turnout in Iran's history, even beating the turnout for the 1997 presidential elections which swept Mohammad Khatami to office in a landslide.

"I haven't seen this phenomenon for 21 years," said the cab driver with great excitement. "I've been driving around just to watch the lines of people wrapped around buildings waiting to vote, and it's all because of Khatami!"

There was exceptional diversity among Iranians out to vote on their weekend day of rest. Families and friends arrived in groups and waited in line patiently to get their chance at the ballot box. It was perhaps the only time I've seen people here wait patiently in a single-spaced line! Many clutched small pieces of paper and newspaper cutouts of candidate lists from campaign advertisements in newspapers. They all carried an anxious determination on their faces. This was the moment of truth.

Once inside, voters presented their identification papers for stamping and received a ballot in return. Then, it was off to find a corner to stand or sit and study their choices, confer with relatives and friends, and carefully write out the names of each of their thirty choices. Voters took their time--many up to 30 minutes. All whom I spoke with later told me they voted for a mixture of mostly reformists and a few independents. Even in the conservative bastion of south Tehran, people were voting reformist.

I visited eight polling stations throughout the city on election day. Most crowded were those in the more affluent areas of north and northwestern Tehran. Polling stations in central Tehran also had lines of people outside. In the south, there were less voters, but more voting stations; people trickled in throughout the day.

There were different reasons for voting, but all wanted change.

A 28 year old man asked me about relations between the U.S. and Iran. "I'm hoping with my vote a reformist victory will help relations improve and help me leave Iran," he told me. When I asked him why he would leave if the situation improved, he replied, "People here lie too much. It has become a habit."

"Economics," said another voter . "Most people are voting for economic reasons -- for an end to the poverty which has gripped the country."

"I am voting so that people can feel my pain, so they can hear my voice," said another voter in central Tehran. "I want my children to have a bright future."

By far, the most striking characteristic of the past few days has been the incredible sense of moral and national duty. "Have you voted yet?" were the first words exchanged with strangers, friends, and relatives on Friday. I was asked this question many times by different people and among the many people I asked, very few said no. Even then, they told me they were still considering voting.

Despite lingering skepticisim people are getting a feel for the political process. They have reached deep into their hearts and taken back their government. Friday the 18th 2000, represents another real turning point in Iran's political history, like May 23rd 1997, when people brought their popular president to office. Indeed, democracy has finally arrived. (See photos of Majlis election day by Dokhi Fassihian here)

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