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Iran Works to Get Out the Vote, but the Disillusioned Aren't Biting

May 13, 2005|Nahid Siamdoust | Special to The Times

TEHRAN — Under a white tent in the central square of the Polytechnic University, historically the most politically active of Iran's campuses, students are lured to an evolving exhibition to read the daily news on next month's presidential election. It's a bid to entice students to vote, funded by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Fearing low turnout, the regime has begun an ambitious campaign to get citizens to the polls. Meeting with university students in the southern province of Kerman, Khamenei this week stressed a theme that has become a constant in his speeches: "Participation in the elections is not only a right, but a religious duty."

Voter turnout is a sign of legitimacy the Islamic Republic needs more than ever, as international pressure mounts over its nuclear program and strife with the United States continues.

On this campus, it could be a hard sell. Students were instrumental in helping reformist President Mohammad Khatami sweep into office eight years ago, but they have gradually become disillusioned as unelected hard-liners blocked reforms, closed dozens of newspapers and disqualified more than 2,000 reformists from running in parliamentary elections last year.

"The past eight years show us that elections don't bring us closer to our goals," said Abdollah Momeni, 28, leader of the Office to Consolidate Unity, Iran's largest pro-reform student group.

"Reforms are not possible from within the confines of the current constitution, not as long as certain appointed bodies have more power than institutions elected by the people," Momeni said, referring to organizations such as the hard-line Guardian Council that hold greater sway than the president or parliament.

On straw mats across the way from the election tent, Momeni had joined other student activists at a sit-in to protest the continued detention of political prisoners and the tight lid on political dissent. Many of the demonstrators said they had no intention of voting. "We protest the killing of freedom and justice," read a handwritten banner behind them.

"The system has effectively told them, 'Your vote doesn't count,' " Tehran University sociologist Hamid Reza Jalaipour said. "People turned out en masse for the past eight years to vote for reforms, but the reformists weren't able to transform Khatami's promises into law."

The June 17 election presents a dilemma for Iranians who seek greater democratization. They are divided into two camps: One is disillusioned and favors an election boycott; the other argues for participation. Followers of the latter group fear that withholding votes will play into the hands of the conservatives, who have already taken over the Majlis, or parliament.

Earlier this year, many Iranian students joined more than 500 political activists who had issued a statement lamenting the lack of democracy in the country and the degradation of the president into a "provisional figure." The Office to Consolidate Unity so far has stopped short of calling for a boycott, but it has also refrained from voicing support for the election or for a candidate.

Candidate registration began this week. Polls indicate that the popular favorites are former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who announced his candidacy Tuesday; former Iranian Police Chief Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf; and reformist candidate Mostafa Moin, who resigned from his post as science minister in 1999 after police violently put down student protests.

Once registration is complete, the Guardian Council will qualify or disqualify the candidates within two weeks.

Moin has geared his campaign toward universities, where he hopes to draw students back into the political arena. During his appearance at the media exhibit this week, he called for the release of political prisoners and journalists. He has also met with Iran's active blog community, many of whom had until recently called for an election boycott.

The bloggers, whose personal websites are filled with political commentary, are considered a key voice in Iran, and the mood among them is shifting as the election draws closer. Many increasingly argue that the reform process cannot be abandoned after eight years of struggle.

"After seeing a conservative Majlis voted into office, I understand the importance of voting now," said blogger Parastoo Dokouhaki, 24, who attended the meeting with Moin. She said she would do all she could to persuade people to vote reformist.

More than 20 bloggers were arrested in December on charges of disturbing the public and threatening national security. Most were held for weeks before being cleared. Ironically, some of those bloggers could help the state achieve a higher turnout by mobilizing their readers.

"They now understand that weblogs can actually play an important role in inviting people to participate in the elections," said former Vice President Mohammed Ali Abtahi, who started a blog more than a year ago, where he posts his observations on the inner workings of the government along with pictures snapped on his mobile phone.

Recent surveys indicate that turnout next month could be between 45% and 60%. "That is based on the presumption that the elections are relatively free, meaning reformist candidates are not disqualified," said Jalaipour, the sociologist.

For Iran, where voter participation is usually much higher, those figures are bleak.

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