Women, youth key to Iran vote
Voting begins Friday; a growing youthful power base is expected to elect a more reform-minded parliament.
In a taxi on her way to a grass-roots political meeting, parliamentary candidate Fatema Haqiqat-Jou is draped from head to toe in a black chador, as anonymous as any Iranian woman following the stringent Islamic dress code.Skip to next paragraph
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But at a town-hall meeting, la John McCain, she turns into a populist firebrand, brandishing a brown leather handbag with the same oomph that Britain's Margaret Thatcher once did.
Ms. Haqiqat-Jou is one of 513 women, among 6,083 candidates, running for a seat in parliament. Women, like her, and young voters are a growing and formidable political power base in Iranian politics. Analysts here say their support is key to breaking the grip of conservative clerics, and to bolstering the popular reform agenda of President Mohamad Khatami.
As the youngest female candidate, Haqiqat-Jou confidently represents both facets of this vanguard and offers a unique window on one of the most vigorous democratic power struggles in the Middle East.
Her message is simple, but aptly illustrates the profound changes sweeping across Iran: The Islamic Revolution has been hi-jacked by self-serving clerics, she says; only voting for reform can re-establish its promise of freedom and democracy.
"I am happy to be among you, people of Tehran," she begins, quietly implying that her conservative opponents don't take the time to mingle among the people. She explains the mechanics of voting, and why it is so important.
She promises the women in the audience, all but their faces shrouded in black, that she will work toward equal rights for women - as promised by the Islamic holy book, the Koran - and for youth programs.
"They believe the people's role is unimportant, but I believe it is the people who can decide," Haqiqat-Jou tells the 200 women, with a few men milling in the back. Later, the women file out, and Haqiqat-Jou stands before some 250 rapt men.
"This is not my idea, but that of Ayatollah Khomeini," she says, pausing with the microphone to adjust her chador reverently, as she invokes the leader of the 1979 revolution. "We are going toward the goals of the Islamic Republic: independence and freedom; but today the framework has changed."
In two rounds of voting, which begin Friday, reformists are likely to take control of the 290-seat parliament, or Majlis, diplomats and analysts here say, which will further weaken Iran's embattled clerical dictatorship. Promising a civil society, the rule of law, and a loosening of restrictions on women and youth, President Khatami set the changes in motion with a 70 percent landslide victory in 1997.
But despite such shows of discontent toward hardliners, Khatami's plans have been slowed by the conservative hold on parliament, the judiciary, and security services. Confident reformists note that the election process coincides with Iran's New Year, during which Iranians zealously clean their houses.
Still, there are warnings that such optimism may be premature, and could provoke a backlash from hardliners and their militant allies such as Ansar e-Hizbullah, who used violence in the past.