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Iran hard-liners set to win polls, end reform era
Updated: 2004-02-20 09:34

Iran's conservative clerics urged voters not to boycott Friday's widely criticized elections, which hard-liners look sure to win and bring an end to President Mohammad Khatami's struggle to reform the Islamic Republic.

Leading reformist parties pulled out of the parliamentary polls after thousands of candidates were disqualified. Disenchantment with Khatami's failure to realize reforms during seven years as president means many voters are likely simply to stay at home, handing victory to conservatives.

"I won't be voting and everyone I talk to says the same," said Mohsen, 44, a retired military engineer from poor south Tehran. "They (politicians) just talk but they haven't done anything for the people. They only think about themselves."

Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, whose surprise choice for the 2003 peace prize shone a global spotlight on the drive for human rights in Iran, said this week she would back the boycott campaign and stay away from the polling booths.

Reformists accuse Islamic hard-liners of rigging Friday's parliamentary polls to ensure a conservative majority by barring more than 2,500 mostly reformist candidates from the ballot.

Another 1,179 contenders then dropped out of the race in protest leaving a field of around 4,420 out of some 8,200 hopefuls who registered to stand for the 290-seat assembly.

Conservative-controlled state television, seeking to counteract the widespread voter apathy, broadcast a stream of exhortations to vote, backed by stirring patriotic music and images of Iranians flooding to the polls in past elections.

Most analysts expect the turnout on Friday, in which some 46 million Iranians aged 15 and over are entitled to vote, to be well below the 67 percent who voted in 2000 elections, when reformist allies of Khatami triumphed. A low turnout could undermine the authority of the result.


A hardline win could stop in its tracks a seven-year experiment to reform the 25-year-old Islamic state that saw lively political debate and some relaxation of strict social codes in the oil-producing nation of 66 million people.

It would also leave Khatami, who has called the vote unfair, facing a tough final 16 months in office dealing with a parliament opposed to his more liberal ideas.

In what many reformers fear could be a sign of things to come, the hardline judiciary on Thursday sealed the campaign headquarters of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, led by Khatami's brother, and blocked access to its news Web Site.

The Participation Front has refused to enter any candidates after most of its hopefuls were barred.

Two of the most outspoken reformist newspapers were closed on Wednesday for daring to report an unprecedented scathing open letter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei by dozens of the reformist lawmakers banned from Friday's poll.

"They are blocking our channels of communication with the people," Ali Shakourirad, one of the deputies and a leading member of the Participation Front, told Reuters.

Criticizing the absolute Islamic leader is an offence, and the Supreme National Security Council had ordered newspapers not to report the six-page letter in which deputies accused Khamenei of presiding over a system that trampled on people's rights.

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