Wednesday, November 21, 2001

TEHRAN A new power struggle is shaking Iran’s political scene, as reformers surrounding moderate President Mohammed Khatami on Sunday accused the nation’s powerful hard-liners of “excluding” their candidates for an upcoming by-election, which they threatened to boycott.

“Unfortunately, the Guardians Council dismissed a large number of reformist candidates on the grounds of a lack of commitment to the regime, the constitution and the supreme leader,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, reformist Tehran Member of Parliament Behzad Nabavi told parliament Sunday.

More than a hundred candidacies, mainly reformist, have been filed for the northeastern Golestan province election, where seven seats are at stake, but 55 were rejected by the hard-line elections-oversight Guardians Council, according to the state news agency IRNA.

Mr. Nabavi, who is considered as parliament spokesman for the pro-reform camp, which dominates the chamber, said that “if reformist candidates are turned down, the population will be disappointed and might abstain” on Election Day.

“If the current situation does not change, and if the council insists on its refusal, the legitimacy of the regime and national interest will be seriously threatened,” Mr. Nabavi said, warning, “Reformist groups and candidates will walk out and the turnout will drop drastically.”

The parliament seats for the Golestan province were left vacant after seven members were killed earlier this year when their airplane, which was also carrying the nation’s transportation minister, Rahman Dadman a reformist and close ally of Mr. Khatami crashed.

The Guardians Council, which has the power to veto laws considered not to conform with Islamic Shariah law, and which can reject election candidates, recently ruled that the majority of the candidates, belonging to the reformist camp, were “ineligible” for the November 30 by-elections in Golestan province.

Ayatollah Khamenei, who controls the nation’s armed forces, appoints the judiciary chief and the head of the state media, as well as six of the 12-man election-watchdog panel, while the remaining six are chosen by the parliament from a list provided by the judiciary chief, currently Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi Shahrudi.

But reformers have been at war with this oversight body, which they accuse of having blocked their candidates in various elections, as well as the majority of their progressive laws voted for by parliament, notably on liberalizing the nation’s strict press code, facilitating foreign investments and defining political crimes.

The rejection of the reformist candidates has in recent days sparked tension in Golestan and notably in its capital, Gorgan, where numerous gatherings and protests have taken place.

The candidates, whose eligibility were rejected, have come to Tehran for meetings and talks with leading members of the reform camp, including parliament Speaker Mehdi Karubi.

Reformers have also in recent days been warning against the “risks of tension” in this northeastern province in case the Guardians Council does not reconsider its ruling.

Later on Sunday, a leading reformist cleric and adviser to Mr. Khatami, Ali Akbar Mohtashami-Pour, who heads the reformist majority in parliament, also called on the council to review its decision.

“It is in the interest of the regime, revolution, country and the people” that the Guardians Council “review its decision,” and not judge the candidates ineligible based “on various excuses,” Mr. Mohtashemi-Pour said, according to the state IRNA news agency.

The former radical turned reformist also warned that the rejection of the candidates would cause an even “greater distrust among the people towards the council, and in the end, towards the regime.”

Late Friday and early Saturday, about 200 people gathered in front of the homes of local clerics and the governor’s office in Gorgan to protest against what they call the “ostracism” of reformist candidates by the nation’s hard-liners.

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