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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.

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As a test, the election was useful, says Mr. Kadivar but its future significance will depend on how many reformist are barred from parliamentary elections in two years; in the last majlis vote, 4,000 candidates were barred, most of them reformists.

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"This election is only a way of measuring power; it's not a real competition," says Kadivar. "The situation for reformists has become better, and conservatives feel this."

Divisions among conservatives

Conservatives, in fact, read something very different in the high number of people who voted. "They wanted to defend the Islamic revolution [of 1979] ... and show their support and confidence [in] politicians," says cleric Ali Teymouri, an election official in charge of a district with 120 ballot boxes.

He noted that President Bush told Iranians not to vote in last year's presidential election, a point remembered by Ahmadinejad on Sunday.

"The Iranian people have taken a decision to reach the summit of progress," he said. "As soon as they see that the enemy wants to stop them doing something, they carried it out."

Indeed, Sayed Khalil Ahmadi, a mechanical engineer who stood in the line outside in a bitter wind holding his infant, until others insisted he jump the line and enter the warm mosque polling station, is a case in point.

"We want the Islamic system, and want it to be the same," says Mr. Ahmadi, pulling a sleeve up over a tiny, bare wrist. "That's why I'm standing out in the cold with my baby."

The election has also laid bare divisions among conservatives, whose primary camps include "fundamentalists" in the Ahmadinejad and Mesbah-Yazdi mold, and "traditionalists" who are more pragmatic and less ideological – for the city council race, they are close to Mayor Mohammad Baqr Qalibaf.

"We tried to make one list, but all of our efforts were defeated," says Amir Mohebian, political editor of the conservative Resalat newspaper. "Why? Because unity when in power is harder [to achieve] than when you are out of power."

A Tehran City Council evenly balanced three ways between the two conservative factions and reformists counts as a victory for reformists, says Mr. Mohebian, because they become the "dealmakers" who can side with either right-wing camp.

Disillusioned voters

Despite the political jousting, it was not difficult to find Iranians disillusioned with politics who shunned the election.

"There is no accountability of the government," complained Omid Younesi, a parking lot attendant in affluent north Tehran, who did not vote. He says he voted twice for Khatami in the past, and then – in an ideological about-face – for Ahmadinejad.

"These representatives don't do anything for the people," says Mr. Younesi. "They are all the same, except for Ahmadinejad. He's helped most of the people, and solves their problems."

But those problems are mounting for ordinary Iranians, who have already delivered to the president's office more than 3.6 million notes and letters requesting help – many of them collected by the populist president himself during trips to the provinces.

Analysts say that Ahmadinejad still remains popular, however, at least for now.

"No one can bring him down, except his economic policies," says Nasser Hadian-Jazy, a political scientist at Tehran University. "[But] a year from now, people are going to get tired and start nagging. In Tehran, people have already begun to nag.... As time passes, [Ahmadinejad] is going to find he's got to deliver."

'A vision for 20 years'

If the election results are seen by some as a setback for the president, his allies on the city council view them differently.

Instead, the vote "shows a high level of political stability" in Iran that does not amount to a "referendum" on Ahmadinejad, says Nader Shariatmadari, a councilman who has known the president for years.

"The city council is not [political], but has a technical role – it's a matter of problem solving in daily life," says Mr. Shariatmadari, who was elected to the city council when Ahmadinejad became mayor, and did not run again.

"We came to the scene four years ago because we felt circumstances in Tehran were very bad after the reformists," says Shariatmadari. "It's not possible to change everything in four years – it takes time. We have a vision for 20 years."