BEIRUT AND TEHRAN — Putting their political rivalries aside, hundreds of Iranian television executives and government officials gathered recently to think up strategies to draw as many voters as possible to their country's June 12 presidential election.
"All four major candidates are in line with the system," Askar Owladi, a high-ranking member of the conservative Islamic Coalition Party, told attendees.
"So we do not feel concerned about who will be our next president," Owladi said. "We should make sure we can maximize the turnout because that high turnout can ensure and secure the future of our system."
Officials announced last week that the powerful Guardian Council approved incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and three other candidates to run in an election that hinges on domestic economic issues but could weigh heavily on the course of several Middle East standoffs.
Though Ahmadinejad, as president, has considerably less power than Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's highest political and spiritual authority, a continued Ahmadinejad presidency, for one thing, would make it tougher for the West to make a deal with Iran over its nuclear program.
Still, for many in the ruling establishment of the Islamic Republic, who wins the presidency is almost less important than how many people vote. In other countries, political operatives and candidates knock on doors, organize carpools and enlist volunteers to encourage voters to cast ballots. In Iran, the government itself rallies voters to the polls.
Khamenei has long placed huge stock on voter participation as a validation of the Islamic Republic's popularity, describing any vote for a candidate as a symbol of national honor and a show of support for Iran's unique political system, which combines elements of a democracy with clerical rule.
Election day "is one of the Iranian nation's big tests before the eyes of the enemies," Khamenei said in a speech this month in western Iran, apparently referring to the West and Israel. "Their aim is to [do something] so that elections are held with little enthusiasm and poor turnout. They want the people of Iran not to have an active participation in the elections."
Central government officials play a heavy role in overseeing elections, monitoring for fraud and counting ballots.
More than 400 candidates applied at the Interior Ministry to run for president. The Guardian Council, a governmental board composed of clerics and jurists that vets all candidates and laws for adherence to the Islamic system, said that only Ahmadinejad, former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi, former parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karroubi and former Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezai would be allowed to run.
Iran's state-run broadcaster has agreed to organize six televised debates among the candidates to drum up interest in the election.
The hard-line Basiji militia, which many credit for having secured the presidency for Ahmadinejad in 2005, has been barred from electioneering. Karroubi and others have called for the creation of independent panels to monitor the vote after allegations in 2005 of ballot shenanigans that favored Ahmadinejad. But judiciary officials have rejected the possibility of establishing a role for international or independent observers.
Officials are promising a free and fair election. This time, they're equipped with a computer vote-counting system meant to prevent cheating.
Opposition figures and foreign TV outlets that serve the Iranian diaspora often call on Iranians to boycott elections as a show of protest. But many analysts think high turnout will benefit moderate candidates like Mousavi and Karroubi.
Ahmadinejad's conservative, rural supporters are expected to dutifully show up at the polls, but educated urbanites may stay home.
Only 34% of Tehran residents voted when conservatives triumphed in 2004 parliamentary elections amid low overall turnout.
In contrast, turnout peaked in 1997 and 2001 in presidential elections that pitted reformist candidate Mohammad Khatami, who preceded Ahmadinejad as president, against hard-liners, and Khatami won both times. His elevation riled conservatives and began eight years of divided government and fierce political infighting.
But either memories of that period have faded or hard-liners are convinced that no one of Khatami's stature or political beliefs has a shot at being elected. Leaders say that just casting a ballot affirms Iranians' support for the country's system of government.
"I am telling you, dear people of Iran, contrary to what the enemies wish, we all need to participate in the elections actively," Khamenei said last week.
"The first priority is not to choose either this individual or that. The first priority is your presence in the elections. Your presence strengthens the state."
Mostaghim is a special correspondent.