What Iran vote says about Ahmadinejad's support
The president's supporters hailed Friday's high turnout as a sign of satisfaction; reformers pointed to discontent.
Even as votes are still being counted from Iran's twin elections last Friday, politicians of all stripes are declaring victory for their own factions.Skip to next paragraph
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Conservative groups are hailing the large turnout – near 60 percent in elections for local councils and the powerful Assembly of Experts – as a public show of support for Iran's Islamic system and continued right-wing rule.
On the other side of Iran's broad political spectrum, reform-leaning politicians appeared to have broken the four-year grip by conservatives on the Tehran City Council by winning a handful of seats there and on a string of local councils across Iran.
Analysts say the inroads may prove the start of a comeback for reformists, who have been shut out of all power centers in Iran since the June 2005 election of arch-conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The biggest surprise – and perhaps the most important omen for future changes – is the support for Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president who was dealt a humiliating defeat by Mr. Ahmadinejad in last year's presidential runoff.
With more than three-quarters of the ballots counted Sunday night, Mr. Rafsanjani was leading the race in Tehran for the Assembly of Experts, which supervises and can replace Iran's supreme religious leader. He took almost twice the number of votes as the ayatollah seen as Ahmadinejad's spiritual mentor, who trailed in seventh.
"This will certainly be evident in the next [parliament] elections, [where] the majority will be reformists," says Mehdi Karroubi, the reform-leaning former parliament speaker. "The number of [reformist seats] depends on how the government handles themselves," says Mr. Karroubi, a presidential candidate who narrowly missed the runoff vote in 2005. "The sound you hear is a return to the reformist camp."
But conservatives caution that it is far too soon to make predictions in a no-holds-barred political system that in the past decade has watched the reformist star rise spectacularly on a wave of popular desire for change – demonstrated during two landslide victories for former President Mohammad Khatami – and then fall when outmaneuvered by the right wing.
These days, it is conservatives who have been fighting one another, dividing into multiple factions, while reformists try to redefine themselves and reunite in the political wilderness.
"The reformists chose unpoliticized people [as city council candidates], who will be effective," says Hamidreza Taraghi, a former lawmaker and member of a conservative coalition. "These people are completely moderate and without extremist tendencies."
He says that Rafsanjani's unequivocal victory over hard-line Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi – who has helped shepherd Ahmadinejad's political career – was a function of name recognition and not a repudiation of the fiery president.
Mr. Taraghi rejects talk of a reformist comeback but does not rule it out: "It depends on the conservatives. If they don't do a good job, the situation could change."
Even newspapers were split over the meaning of early results. "Defeat for the supporters of the government," reveled one reformist daily on Sunday; and "Decisive victory for the conservatives," crowed a government paper.
Five times the turnout of 2002
Though all factions called for a large turnout, few expected so many Iranians to vote. Widespread apathy during the last local council vote in early 2002 yielded just a 12 percent turnout in Tehran – and a conservative victory.
This time, election officials had to call for extra ballot boxes, and keep polls open three extra hours.
High turnout usually favors reformists. In this case, many voters said they wanted to mark their displeasure with Ahmadinejad's abrasive policies abroad and inflationary economic policies at home.
"The vote for Rafsanjani is very significant; [it] shows that the people of Tehran want to correct their errors of the last election," says Mohsen Kadivar, a reformist cleric and philosophy professor. "It means the school of thought of Ahmadinejad – in the form of Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi – has failed."
Two Mesbah-Yazdi allies did not make the Assembly of Experts cut-off in Tehran, Reuters reported, quoting the official IRNA news agency. Three others lost in the provinces, though one captured a seat.