Iran's voters cast their ballots against moderation

Iran may be heading for a hardline theocratic government. This trend, reflected in early returns from the Majlis (National Assembly) election, militates against moderate President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr consolidating his power as he had hoped.

The apparent triumph of the fundamentalist Islamic Republican Party (IRP) could relegate President Bani-Sadr to little more than a figurehead role rather than being a pivotal political figure.

What the elections mean for the 50 American hostages being held in the US Embassy is that attempts by President Bani-Sadr to set them free will continue to face serious opposition.

Ayatollah Khomeini has left it to the Majlis, as the representative of the people, to decide the fate of the hostages. A fundamentalist-dominated Majlis may drag out the debate on the hostages before finally agreeing to set them free.

By midafternoon March 16, with results from less than half the constituencies in, the fundamentalist IRP appeared to have captured the largest block of seats in the assembly. However, the IRP is expected to fall short of an absolute majority.

If the picture that is emerging holds through the second phase of balloting, due to be held the first week of April, President Bani-Sadr will have to ask the cleric-dominated IRP to form a government. But in order to do so, the hardliners will have to form a coalition with one or more of the other parties that have stood in the elections.

This enforced coalition arrangement, in turn, could have a moderating influence on the fundamentalists, since most of Iran's dozen-or-so parties were not favorably disposed toward the IRP.

Other parties have accused the IRP of having tried to monopolize the political situation in Iran since the February uprising over a year ago. How Mr. Bani-Sadr's own group, which he tried to put together after becoming President, faired in the election isn't clear yet, but it certainly could not win a very large block of seats because it did not put up candidates in even half of the constituencies.

But one reason for the emerging victory of the fundamentalists is that many Iranians who voted for Mr. Bani-Sadr in the presidential race turned around and voted for the IRP in the Majlis poll. Said one Iranian: "I voted for Bani-Sadr because he is a good man and I love him, but I voted for the Islamic Republicans in the Majlis poll because I have confidence in them."

However, reports are still coming in that mullahs throughout the country may be helping the IRP win a majority by taking advantage of the illiteracy of a large percentage of the voters and writing in the names of IRP candidates on their ballot papers.

To many of the illiterates or semi-illiterates, the IRP has been presented as "God's Party." And in the small towns, particularly, it would be natural for many voters to put all their trust in the mullahs.

There has, been an uproar about the elections, however. Former Minister of State Dariush Foruhar, one of the leading secular figures during the revolution against the Shah, submitted his resignation to Ayatollah Khomeini and President Bani-Sadr in protest against what has been described as extensive rigging and violations of the election regulations during the March 14 voting.

Mr. Foruhar and other who are protesting the conduct of the elections claim that in an exceedingly large number of cases election officials were seen openly handing out lists of candidates of the IRP and its allies during the polling, although regulations expressly forbade campaigning during the balloting.

There have, of course, been countercharges by the IRP that similar practices were indulged in by other groups, such as the Mujahideen Khalq Islamic guerrilla organization and the Fedayeen Khalq Marxist guerrilla organization.

IRP officials claim that Mujahideen in Kermanshah were seen writing in the name of their candidate on the ballots of illiterate voters.

But about 150 Mujahideen and Fedayeen were reportedly arrested in the capital. Mujhideen chief Masoud Rajavi called on President Bani-Sadr March 16 and reportedly discussed election misconduct and the arrest of some of the Mujahideen. Some groups have called for fresh elections. And President Bani-Sadr explained: "There have been many complaints of cheating which must be investigated."

The President added, "If we see that the cheating is widespread and serious, of course the elections will be canceled."

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