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Wary Iranians Give Leader a Second Term

By Stephen HubbellSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 14, 1993



TEHRAN

THE Iranian leader has won an ambiguous victory in presidential elections here, reducing the prospects that his program of economic reform will continue and endangering his efforts toward a limited rapprochement with the West.

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President Hashemi Rafsanjani earned a second four-year term with 63 percent of the popular vote in balloting on Friday, according to figures released yesterday by Iran's Interior Ministry. In the days preceding the contest, Western diplomats and other observers had forecast that the president would emerge with more than 90 percent of the total.

Mr. Rafsanjani's nearest rival, an economic columnist and former labor minister with strong ties to the powerful religious community, did surprisingly well, taking 24 percent of the roughly 17 million votes cast.

Apathy ran high in the presidential contest, which senior officials had hoped would provide a sweeping mandate for Rafsanjani's program of economic and political liberalization. Instead, less than 60 percent of the eligible electorate cast ballots, far below the 80 percent participation level that officials had predicted late last week.

"This is a stunning disappointment for Rafsanjani," one diplomat here commented. "It was very much a referendum on the man and his policies. The low turnout says it all."

Government officials doubted the president would make an anticipated public appearance, given his relatively poor showing in the polls.

In power since 1989, Rafsanjani has embarked, albeit tentatively, on an economic program that would free exchange rates, cut government subsidies, and encourage private investment. In recent months, he has also quietly indicated he would welcome expanded financial and political ties with Europe and the United States, a bold departure from the virulent anti-Western rhetoric of the 1979 revolution that brought his predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, to power.

But Rafsanjani is opposed by a politically powerful group of religious leaders, called mullahs, many of whom have cast themselves as Islamic populists, and by a growing segment of poor Iranians who have been squeezed by his free-market policies.

Inflation and unemployment run high in Iran, and the leadership had hoped Friday's polling would increase the momentum for change. But the president's weak showing is likely to invigorate his opponents and demoralize his supporters.

"The mullahs will stop Rafsanjani from doing anything new," insisted Nador Farhang, a high school geography teacher in Tehran, who stayed away from the polls.

Many Tehranis complained privately that the elections, which had been carefully orchestrated by the government to avoid a repeat of the widespread unrest that marred last year's parliamentary contest, offered them no real choice. The upper house of the Iranian parliament, the Council of Guardians, vetted a list of 128 aspirants for the presidency and emerged with four candidates, all remarkably similar in their outlook and programs.

True to the Iranian norm, this campaign contained more than its share of anti-American bluster and demands for greater steadfastness against Iran's "enemies." At a rally on the campus of Tehran University Friday, senior religious leaders chanted "Death to America!" and lamented Western economic "terror" against the Iranian people.

Visitors to the ballot-counting office at the Interior Ministry in Tehran were obliged to tread on an American flag as they entered the room. Voters interviewed on election day repeatedly mentioned dislike of the US as an attribute they sought in their president.

"Rafsanjani really hates the Americans," said Mohammad Hussein Renaid, an engineering student and supporter of the president, as he arrived at a polling station in central Tehran Friday. "He's definitely the best enemy of the United States."

Rafsanjani's reputation as a pragmatist helped him in the 1989 elections, when he officially took more than 90 percent of the popular vote and appeared to be the heir to Khomeini's political legacy.

But his image as a realist and shrewd dealmaker may have hurt him Friday as he struggled to hold together an increasingly fragmented political system.

Political power in Iran is divided between the presidency, the parliament, and the mullahs, who control wealthy foundations that dispense millions of dollars worth of social services and patronage.

Rafsanjani's foreign policy ambitions also have been stymied by the Clinton administration's resolve to keep up diplomatic and economic pressure against Iran. Last week, Secretary of State Warren Christopher called on Western allies to curtail their commercial and military ties with the Tehran regime.

But observers here agree that Rafsanjani's political future rests on his ability to deliver greater economic growth and prosperity.

"The next two years will be decisive for Rafsanjani," remarked one senior Western diplomat. "He will sink or swim with his economic program."