12/14/2006, 00.00
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Elections in Tehran tomorrow, feared and under surveillance

by Dariush Mirzai
Only Muslims vote for the Expediency Council; everyone votes for mayors and municipal councils. However restrictive elections rules are, they remain a test that might bring important changes.

Tehran (AsiaNews) – December 15 is election day in Iran. Muslims vote for a pre-selected list of candidates for the Council of Guardians. They also choose the Assembly of Experts (86 members elected for eight, perhaps ten years, if rules are changed), whose members have the right to review the actions of the Supreme Leader and choose the successor of current occupant, the ayatollah Ali Khamenei, should he die or become incapacitated. Iranians of all faiths will also elect their municipal leaders. Local government is very weak, but the vote remains a political test. This explains why the Islamist regime has been weary about it for several weeks leading up to election day.

Intimidation and censorship have been widespread. The most serious example was the threat on December 3 by the courts against ten, mostly –reform-oriented, newspapers for printing information about candidates and political issues ahead of the official December 7 kick off to the short campaign. Just the photos of former President Khatami and 15 future candidates drew the of Tehran judges.

The last municipal elections took place in 2002 and were a stage in the Conservatives war against Khatami’s reformers. Reformers now hope a similar political breakthrough that might spill over into national politics. Despite the fact that reformist papers like Shargh were shut down months ago and many voters lost hope or interest in fighting for freedom, reformist strategists were still able to meet and work out joint lists.

A tactical alliance has emerged between reformists and anti-Ahmadinejad conservatives like Hashemi Rafsanjani and his supporters: reformers will get help in the municipal elections; conservatives will get help in Assembly of Experts.

The real battle in the latter is between two ayatollahs: the fanatical Mesbah-Yazdi and the very rich Rafsanjani.

Symbolically and in terms of political-religious inspiration Ahmadinejad is behind Mesbah-Yazdi. This rivalry is rooted in Shiism’s schools but is manifest in the contrast between includes possibly opening the country a bit to global influence.

Reformers have opted to stay away from this struggle. Important groups like the Association of Combatant Clerics and the Islamic Revolution’s Mujahedin Organization, which are close to the reformers, have decided against running their own candidates. Although allowed to exist these groups have had to overcome so many legal barriers that they’d rather boycott the whole process.

The “scientific” or “scholastic” selection process for candidates is one such barrier. To run for a spot on the Assembly of experts, candidates have to show their expertise in Islamic canon law or pass a text. The Guardians then decide who can pass a test and who cannot. Results indicated that no woman was qualified enough.

A similar selection process exists in mayoralty races. Candidates must be university graduates to run for mayor in small towns and hold a master degree for cities of more than 200,000 residents Parliament further raised the bar by introducing another precondition, namely two year work experience in state or private organisations.

Despite it all and notwithstanding the absence of illusions as to the outcome of the election to the Assembly of Experts, reformers are still optimistic about local elections.

Iran’s political system is so structured so as to avoid surprises and political debate. But sometimes some surprises are possible as evinced by Ahmadinejad’s election.

The risk is that however few voters may be, they will go and vote, not so much for a platform but rather against a candidate, out of disgust and indifference.

Rafsanjani should know this. Defeated in the last presidential elections, he was masterful in navigating amongst the regime’s political factions since then, but still has to be worried for the outcome of tomorrow’s election.

At the international level, attention has focused on Mesbah-Yazdi, the promoter of violence and slavery for infidels and of the use of nuclear weapons. If his faction wins, the regime won’t change, but Ahmadinejad’s approach will be strengthened for many years.

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