Iran General NewsHard-line strength seen in Iran election

Hard-line strength seen in Iran election

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AP: Iran’s hard-liners head into Friday’s parliamentary elections burdened by the unpopularity of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad because of an ailing economy. But they have a safety net: Rival reformists are crippled after the clerical leadership threw out their best candidates. The Associated Press

By LEE KEATH

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran’s hard-liners head into Friday’s parliamentary elections burdened by the unpopularity of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad because of an ailing economy. But they have a safety net: Rival reformists are crippled after the clerical leadership threw out their best candidates.

All sides agree that conservatives should retain their dominance of parliament. But the election may give hints of the depth of Ahmadinejad’s support among conservatives, some of whom have become disillusioned with the fiery leader.

Ahmadinejad’s allies have sought to shore up support by promising a better economy after dramatic inflation in the past year.

Religious slogans calling for sacrifice for the sake of the nation — once the staple of conservative campaign literature — are unseen this time. Instead, the pro-Ahmadinejad group of candidates promises voters a parliament that, according to campaign posters, “feels your pain.”

Ahmadinejad was elected on a populist agenda in 2005, promising to bring oil revenues to every family, help the poor and tackle unemployment — believed to now be more than 20 percent. But under his rule, Iran has seen dramatic price increases in housing and basic commodities. According to official statistics, inflation stands at 17 percent, but unofficial estimates are much higher.

In a weekend debate with a top reform leader, hard-line candidate Mohammad Reza Bahonar, who is seen as a key architect of Ahmadinejad’s rise in 2005, admitted to soaring inflation, but he said the president has brought other achievements, including progress in the nuclear program.

Bahonar, the deputy parliament speaker, was on the defensive for his support for Ahmadinejad’s government. “I believe that the leadership of parliament should not obstruct the wheels of the government,” he said.

Still, the grouping of pro-Ahmadinejad candidates, known as the United Front of Principlists, is considered the strongest. It boasts some of the best-known names in Iranian politics and is the largest force in the race. The name “principlists” refers to their adherence to the principles of the Islamic revolution — in contrast to reformers, who seek changes in the cleric-dominated structure of Iran’s Islamic system.

The Guardian Council, a body of hard-line clerics and jurists who check candidates for their loyalty to the revolution, barred more than 1,700 candidates from running, most of them reformers, including their best-known leaders.

That has forced the movement to turn to candidates with little name recognition.

“At the moment, the fundamentalists have more power. They use their power to control the election and use their influence in the procedure of the elections,” Ghahraman Safavi, a pro-reform cleric running in Tehran, told The Associated Press.

Safavi, who says Iran needs greater freedoms at home and a “detente” with the West, has never held an elected post, spent 12 years in Britain and — from his writings — is better known in philosophical circles than in political ones.

Because of the disqualifications, reformers are not competing in races for about 200 of parliament’s 290 seats, said prominent reformist Mohammad Reza Khatami, brother of former President Mohammad Khatami.

Reformers had hoped to stage a comeback after their dominance of parliament was broken in 2004. In that election, many of its lawmakers also were barred from running by the Guardian Council, allowing hard-liners to take over.

Now the reformists hope to expand the handful of seats they hold to create a more vocal minority bloc.

Ahmadinejad’s followers are more concerned with a rival conservative slate, the Inclusive Coalition of Principlists, dominated by presidential critics.

Conservative critics have accused Ahmadinejad of monopolizing decision-making and pushing away the clerical hierarchy. Others say his harsh rhetoric toward the West has only worsened Iran’s standoff over the nuclear issue, bringing more U.N. sanctions.

Ahmadinejad’s “methods have been wrong. On the economy, his methods have been regrettable … on foreign policy, they have been very costly,” said Saeed Abotaleb, a lawmaker running for re-election in Tehran on the Inclusive Coalition slate.

If Ahmadinejad’s critics have a strong showing, it could benefit potential conservative rivals in the 2009 presidential elections, such as popular Tehran Mayor Mohmmad Baqer Qalibaf. It would also likely benefit former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who many believe is unlikely to run for president again, but is a powerful cleric seen as a top rival of Ahmadinejad.

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has final say in the country, has long supported conservatives over reformists but has tried to stay above the differences in the hard-line camp. He gave unusually vocal praise for Ahmadinejad on the nuclear issue, but has also implicitly criticized the president.

Campaigning has been muted. Parliament banned any poster larger than a playing card bearing a candidate’s photo, a move it said aimed to cut down on wasting paper.

But the effect for Iranians has been to make the overwhelming number of candidates — some 4,500 nationwide — even more anonymous.

The slates provide some clue as to candidates’ stances — but not a sure one since the lists are as much a product of political dealmaking as ideology.

In Tehran, each voter will choose 30 names to fill the capital’s 30 seats from among 800 candidates. They can check all the names on a single list but many voters pick and choose from several lists, or go with independents, often based on name recognition.

Voters appear to be paying little attention, focused instead on shopping for the March 20 holiday of Nowruz, the Iranian calendar’s New Year’s Day.

“The price of rice has doubled in the past few months, and legislators haven’t done a thing. Why should I vote?” said Reza Amiri, 41, a rail worker shopping in Karaj, a town on Tehran’s western outskirts.

Reformers say they enjoy the support of a silent majority, and that apathy hurts them the most. To boost turnout, posters of the main reformist slate plead with voters, “Join us, friend. This shared pain can’t be cured if we are apart.”

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