Iranian hardliners expected to retain their grip in polls

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 March, 2008, 12:00am

Iran votes on Friday in an election expected to confirm conservative dominance of parliament after mass disqualifications of reformists, with the authorities anxiously hoping for a strong turnout as a message to western enemies.

Unelected hardliners wrecked reformists' hopes of mounting a challenge to the conservative dominance of the 290-seat chamber by blocking candidacies of hundreds of reformist hopefuls in the vetting process.

The vote takes place against a backdrop of double-digit inflation which has caused hardship for the urban poor. But this is not expected to spark a backlash against the conservatives dominating the chamber.

'The new parliament will be a repeat of the previous one,' said sociologist Hamid Reza Jalaipour. 'The powers that be are doing all they can to limit the diversity that exists in Iranian society.'

An official from the main reformist coalition acknowledged that the bloc had no chance of recapturing control of the legislature.

'With the rejection of the candidates, the reformists can only hope for a minority in parliament,' official Mostafa Tajzadeh said.

Reformist leaders have said they could compete for only 50 per cent of the seats, a scenario that is a virtual rerun of the 2004 parliamentary elections when moderates also suffered mass disqualifications.

Dozens of reformist parties are competing under the banner of the main coalition, which was inspired by former president Mohammad Khatami, who has spoken out bitterly against his successor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's economic polices in recent months.

The reformist wild card is former parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi, who has kept a separate identity from the main coalition and whose National Confidence Party emerged in slightly better form from the vetting than other moderates.

Although conservatives seem assured of keeping their majority in the parliament - the Majlis - they have failed to avoid a split into two separate coalitions, one of which seems less keen on Mr Ahmadinejad than the other.

The main coalition calls itself the 'United' conservatives while the breakaway group are the 'Broad' conservatives. As is customary in Iranian politics, many candidates will stand on both lists.

Differences in policy are difficult to detect and the division is believed to have sprung from a wrangle over how many staunch Ahmadinejad supporters should be on the list for Tehran.

'There will not be a solid majority in the future parliament as the conservatives are fractured too,' Tehran University political science Professor Mohammad Marandi said.

Such fractures also indicate that the jostling has already begun for next year's presidential elections - politically a much more significant poll in which Mr Ahmadinejad will seek to extend his controversial presidency for another four years.

The 'Sweet Scent of Service' faction of diehard Ahmadinejad supporters are standing on the United conservative list. But analysts have warned the factional nature of Iranian politics means it will be hard to sniff out the president's nationwide popularity in the vote.

Turnout figures are likely to be as closely watched as the outcome itself, with officials urging Iranians to cast their ballots en masse to show the west the country is unified at a time of tensions over its nuclear programme.

The last parliamentary polls in 2004 were something of an embarrassment for the system - barely half of the electorate turned out to vote and only 37 per cent did in Tehran.

'I have always emphasised the importance of massive and dynamic public participation because going to the polls is against the will and desire of the enemy,' Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said recently.

The Iranian parliament wields a respectable amount of power and must approve all government bills and ministerial appointments.

But its authority is limited by the unelected Guardians Council, which vets all parliamentary legislation to ensure it is in line with Iran's Islamic constitution.