- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 2, 2003

TEHRAN, Iran, March 2 (UPI) — Iran's local elections turned into a serious blow to reformers who had been sweeping elections in the country for six years.

With a lowest turnout — 39 percent — across the country and a turnout of just 15 percent Tehran for Friday's vote, Iran's conservatives seem to have exploited growing disillusion with factional politics to win all 15 seats of the city's municipal council, which was dissolved in December due to political infighting.

In the second municipal elections since the establishment of an Islamic republic in Iran in 1979, some 218,000 candidates, including 5,000 women, stood for about 112,000 seats for 905 city councils and 34,205 town and village councils, according to official reports.

Unlike presidential and parliamentary elections, candidates were not required to undergo a strict vetting process by the hard-line watchdog body, the Guardian Council. Instead, they were approved by the reformist-majority parliament and an election board at the interior ministry, resulting in a wider pool of names of all political leniency, including several liberal dissidents from the already banned Iran Freedom Movement opposition group.

"By taking part in the elections, we want to support the democratization effort and the reforms undertaken in the past few years," Iranian media quoted Ebrahim Yazdi, head of the movement, as having said. "In our country, democracy is a long road, and depends as much on the attitude of those in power as the activities of the opposition."

Observers, however, say that much of the disillusionment should be blamed on the low pace of reformers to affect social and political changes which were initiated by the moderate President Mohammad Khatami in 1997 when he was first elected in a landslide victory.

The conservative newspaper Keyhan was among the first among the hard-line circles that reacted to the reformers' failure, calling it a "definitive victory for the conservatives."

On the other hand, a prominent reformist figure, Mohammad Reza Khatami, who is the deputy speaker of Parliament and head of the leading reformist party, the Islamic Iran Participation Front, warned against the implications of the unprecedented low turnout, saying that "all institutions are responsible for this dissatisfaction."

"We should find out why 25 million people have refused to participate (in voting) … if we take this warning for granted, tomorrow will be too late," he said, referring to a general turnout of 39 percent across the country, far from the 60 percent that Interior Minister Abdolvahed Mousavi-Lari had predicted Friday. Turnout in 1999 was 64.4 percent.

Analysts say that turnout is very important for reformers who regard local elections as part of their plan to form a civil society at the grassroots level.

In the course of campaigning, some conservative figures had even called on their supporters to boycott the elections or be careful who they vote for.

"Real believers will not take part in the vote," said Assadollah Badamchian, a leader of the conservative Islamic Coalition Association.

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