- The Washington Times - Friday, February 20, 2004

TEHRAN — Iran’s conservatives yesterday appeared poised to take control of the country’s legislature as pro-reform liberal voters heeded a boycott call and stayed away from the polls to protest what they said was a rigged election.

The only suspense was how many voters had heeded reformist calls not to vote to protest the blacklisting of thousands of moderate candidates. Official numbers are expected to begin trickling in today.

The government began a massive publicity campaign, warning that abstaining would be tantamount to aiding “the enemy,” America. While turnout was lighter than in the past, a mass repudiation of the vote did not materialize.

Analysts predicted the Developers of Islamic Iran, a group of hard-liners, would be the new dominant political force in the country. The group’s leader, lawmaker Gholamali Haddadadel, is a relative of Ayatollah Khamenei, the Islamic Republic’s supreme religious leader and dominant political force.

Election commission head Ahmad Azimzadeh late yesterday was quoted as saying turnout in the region including Tehran was estimated at 40 percent, higher than many reformists had hoped.

Mr. Azimzadeh said conservative candidates seemed to be ahead.

Turnout in more conservative villages and towns outside the major urban centers is expected to be higher, and some analysts were projecting a turnout of 50 percent. That would be more than 16 percentage points lower than the previous parliamentary elections in 2000, but far from the widespread rejection some reformists had hoped for.

The Bush administration, which had muted its criticism of the election for fear of provoking a nationalist backlash, yesterday stepped up its attack on the election.

“Candidates have been barred from participating in the elections in an attempt to limit the choice of the Iranian people for their government,” State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said in Washington.

“These actions do not represent free and fair elections and are not consistent with international norms.”

Iran’s Interior Ministry said it expected to release the first results and a turnout figure today and dismissed early estimates as mere speculation.

“As long as we have not opened the ballot boxes, none of the figures being bandied around can be confirmed by the Interior Ministry,” said spokesman Jahanbakhsh Khanjani.

Four years ago the lines of voters extended out into the streets, with jubilant Iranians talking politics and singing songs as they sent a band of reformers to take over the parliament and deliver a stinging rebuke against the country’s hard-line Islamic rulers.

Those elections put Iran’s government in the hands of moderates, setting off a battle between the theocratic nation’s divinely mandated rulers and elected officials such as President Mohammed Khatami.

But last month the game came to an abrupt end: An appointed conservative watchdog called the Council of Guardians barred thousands of liberal candidates, including dozens of sitting members of parliament, from running. Hundreds more allowed to run withdrew in protest. Many called for a boycott, bypassing the censored media using the Internet or text messages via cell phone.

As a result, the election rolls yesterday were devoid of reformists, liberals and opponents of the clerical regime.

“There’s no way I’m going to vote this time,” said Amir Farmani, a pubic works engineer who spent the day shopping with his family. “I don’t believe in the system. I’d like a system like France or England, where anyone can vote for anyone.”

But at a polling station in the southern Tehran, supporters of Iran’s clerical regime did turn out to heavy numbers. Most of those who showed up said they were not supporters of Mr. Khatami, the reformists’ champion twice elected with huge majorities.

Some, like Fatemeh Hossein, said they were coming to vote for a specific candidate, such as incumbent Soheila Jelodarzadeh, a labor advocate. “She’s done well,” she said. “She’s always speaking up for poor people like me.”

In contrast, many of Mr. Khatami’s onetime supporters branded him a coward for failing to stand up to the conservatives. The 66-year-old mid-ranking cleric backed off earlier threats to join the boycott.

His supporters were disgusted. “In the end, Khatami turned out to be just like the conservatives,” said Sassan Haghighpour, a long-haired medical student walking past a mosque doubling as a voting center. “He betrayed his supporters.”

Voting centers were barren in the city’s modern, wealthy north, though many Iranians like to vote in the evenings. Late reports said voters were filling polling places in central Tehran and that ministries had kept centers open for as much as four hours after the official closing time to boost turnout figures.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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