TEHRAN — Iran's largest pro-reform party announced Monday that it would boycott the Feb. 20 parliamentary elections, saying it no longer had hope for a free and fair vote. An emergency Cabinet meeting backed calls for a postponement of the balloting.
Iran's reformists are enraged by the decision of the Guardian Council -- an unelected constitutional oversight body run by religious hard-liners -- to declare more than 2,000 would-be lawmakers unfit to run in the elections.
More than 120 reformist lawmakers resigned from parliament Sunday, and President Mohammad Khatami's reformist government has called for the vote to be postponed.
"We have no hope that a fair, free and legitimate election can be held on Feb. 20. So in the current circumstances we cannot participate," Mohammad Reza Khatami, head of the Islamic Iran Participation Front party, said during a news conference.
Khatami added that his party, one of the main backers of Iran's president, his brother, would put forward candidates for an election only if the bans were overturned and the vote was delayed to allow more time for campaigning. More than 80 deputies in the reformist-dominated 290-seat parliament are among those barred from the election.
He said that although his party was not calling on Iranians to abstain from voting, turnout would inevitably be very low.
Monday's developments leave Iran at a crossroads: rule by the hard-liners or a path toward greater democracy. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, may risk losing legitimacy unless he supports reformists' calls for a democratic vote.
The political standoff has overshadowed celebrations to mark the 25th anniversary of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's return from exile to create an Islamic state.
Despite the heightened political tension, public interest in the dispute has so far been muted. Disillusioned by years of broken promises of reform, most Iranians have grown apathetic to the power struggle between reformists and hard-liners.
Turnout in local council elections last February plunged to about 15% in major cities, and most analysts expect a similar outcome in this year's parliamentary elections.