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In Iran, hopes for democracy dwindle

Reformers dispirited as candidates registered for parliamentary vote.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 18, 2003


Once seen as the most vigorous democratic impulse in the Islamic world, Iran's reform movement is battling for political survival.

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This week, candidates are registering for Iran's February parliamentary elections. But this first step in the process - conducted with perfect civility - belies a tumultuous political scene for reformists - including attacks on them by vigilantes - plus a growing apathy among voters.

The collapsing popularity of President Mohamad Khatami, and the stymied reform movement that he symbolizes, may result in the handover of Iran's parliament to conservatives - the same entrenched faction that has successfully blocked Mr. Khatami's efforts, say analysts here.

"Reform is dead, and its leaders are not going to be [in the new parliament]," says Shirzad Bozorgmehr, deputy editor of the English-language Iran News. "That's going to anger a lot of people, because the conservatives will be stronger.

but it's going to be a fact of life."

One possible silver lining, some analysts say, is that a modest conservative victory might yield a less combative political atmosphere, and a parliament, or majlis, that can get something done. Hard-liners in both camps declare they can't work together. But the lessons of the reform experience - the clear desire for change that prompted three landslide elections victories for reformers since 1997, and the bursting bubble of their high expectations - is shaping moderates on both sides, and could lead to an alliance in parliament.

"The idea of reform has taken root, even though it has been diverted from its original path," says Bozorgmehr. "If the rightists don't fear anyone, and feel no threat from reformers, then they can afford to be magnanimous."

Frustration runs deep, however. The main reformist party, the Islamic Iran Participation Front (IIPF), has warned that it may call a boycott if its candidates are rejected in large numbers by the Guardian Council, an unelected conservative body that has heavily vetted candidates in the past. It is one lever of power in Iran, along with the judiciary and security forces, that remains in the hands of hard-liners. Targeted by such unelected bodies, some 100 reform newspapers have been shut down since 2000, and several key reform leaders are behind bars.

Last week in Geneva, Khatami said that democracy is the "only alternative." But the depth of conservative suspicion was clear in the response to those words by Ayatollah Ahmed Jannati, the hard-line Friday prayer leader, who told Iranians: "They are lying. Do not be fooled by them. Leave democracy alone."

Overshadowing the process are the demands of the Iran's youthful population, two-thirds of them under 30 years old, who have little recollection of the 1979 Islamic revolution - and sometimes want to challenge ruling clerics head-on.

A recent poll by the Tehran Medical University is reported to have found that 72 percent of respondents thought the reform process was over; 38 percent wanted Mr. Khatami to quit, and nearly a third wanted majlis deputies to resign.

"Khatami is forgotten - he's not an issue anymore," says a Western diplomat. "But the Khatami era made the reality of social change more open. There is an increasing gap between society and politics."

Reversing the subsequent apathy is proving difficult for both camps, though conventional wisdom is that less voters means more chances for conservatives. City council elections last February yielded just 12 percent turnout in Tehran (and more than 50 percent nationwide) - and a conservative victory.

That result "is an example people are very happy about these days," suggests Hussein Shariatmadari, a representative of Iran's supreme spiritual leader, and editor of the conservative Kayhan newspaper.