Iran's Rafsanjani Consolidates Governing Majority for Reform

Voters show dismay with legislature, see president as 'last chance'

IRAN's parliamentary election runoff tomorrow is likely to give President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani the broad political majority in the legislature that he has been seeking since his election in August 1989.

In the first round of the contest on April 10, voters chose some 120 pro-Rafsanjani candidates and only 10 candidates opposed to the president's policies. But the electorate also handed a devastating defeat to longstanding Iranian politicians on both sides.

The combination of a sturdy new majority and a predominance of inexperienced legislators is expected to increase the weight of the executive branch in Iran, after years of conflict between it and the legislature.

At the same time, Western observers based in Tehran, as well as Iranian journalists, say Rafsanjani's success will be a two-edged sword.

While it will give him a freer hand to conduct the affairs of the country, it will also mean he can no longer blame the legislative body for failures. Rather he will have to shoulder the entire responsibility for the results of his policies.

"We have come to a point where Rafsanjani is the Islamic revolution's last chance," says a senior Iranian civil servant who has been closely involved in Iran's affairs since the 1979 revolution. "He is the savior. If he doesn't succeed in putting the country back on track, I don't know what will happen."

While the first round of voting brought victory to Rafsanjani supporters in rural constituencies and small towns, less than half of the 136 winners were incumbents.

"People are tired of political incoherence," explains Said Rajaie Khorassani, a supporter of the president who has been chairing the parliamentary Foreign Affairs committee and faces a difficult second ballot in Tehran himself. "The outgoing parliament has been hesitant, it has regularly embarrassed and weakened the government. People believe that the Cabinet and the president would do better if they decided to cooperate."

In Iran, most parliamentary sessions are broadcast live on television and over the years viewers have often endured endless and fruitless debates about obscure issues.

One taxi driver complains, "I can't take this anymore. Those debates are sometimes so erratic that you don't understand what is at stake and what the pros and cons are."

A strong executive branch and a weak legislature were two characteristics of the former shah's regime that were overturned by the post-revolutionary constituent assembly.

In an attempt to redress the imbalance, the government of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini passed a constitutional law in 1979 that conferred vast powers on the 270-seat assembly, known as the Majlis, and seriously clipped the wings of the Cabinet and the presidency.

This new law led to endless conflicts throughout the 1980s between the two branches of power.

In July 1989, a few weeks after Ayatollah Khomeini's death, Rafsanjani secured a constitutional revision that in turn trimmed the powers of the Majlis.

Tomorrow's runoff should enable the president to gain control over the country's decision-making apparatus. Rafsanjani will then be free to pursue his policies. In the past, groups in parliament have fought vigorously over Rafsanjani's overtures to the international community and his plans to return Iran to a free-market economy.

It is clear that he has enemies. Both Western intelligence sources and Iranian officials confirm that the president has faced at least one assassination attempt. It took place in the eastern city of Mashad in June 1991: As he was boarding his plane to return to Tehran, his security guards ordered him to extend his stay a few hours. The plane blew up minutes later.

AFTER tomorrow's run-off election, Rafsanjani is expected to move forward on his policy of privatizing state-owned companies. Muham-mad Hussein Adeli, who heads the Central Bank, announced April 21 that "all companies nationalized in the 1980s will be returned to the private sector before the end of 1993."

The president will also try to accelerate the return of Iran to the international fold. But he is unlikely to embark on a rapprochement with the United States, at least in coming months.

"Our hatred toward crimes committed by the US in Iran and in the Islamic world is immense," said former Interior Minister Ali Akbar Nategh Nuri last month. "Speculation about a possible resumption of ties with the US is ridiculous," said Mr. Nategh Nuri, who is tipped to be the next speaker of the Majlis.

An easing off on the Islamic code of living will also not come soon. Indeed, there are several politicians among the supporters of the president who are closely allied to powerful city merchant guilds and hold dogmatic views about the implementation of Islamic law. The political leanings of the leader of this faction, Habibollah Asgar Owladi, are reflected in editorials of the influential daily Ressalat.

In the meantime, all of Tehran's well-known political figures face a second ballot tomorrow.

In the 30-seat constituency of Tehran, only two candidates secured enough votes to gain a seat on the first round.

One of them is Ali Akbar Mussavi-Husseini, a soft-spoken cleric who hosts a weekly television show. Every Tuesday, Mr. Mussavi-Husseini, who supports Rafsanjani but has few political credentials, answers questions from viewers on family issues. Iranian intellectuals, whether supporters or detractors of the Islamic regime, speak contemptuously of Mussavi-Husseini, whose style, they say, is finical and affected.

But a European diplomat commented: "The Iranian ruling elite should pay attention to the fact that 55 percent of the capital's voters sent to the parliament a clergyman who hardly speaks about politics and who more or less plays the role of a cleric in the Western sense of the term. It's clear that a clergyman like Rafsanjani has political skills, but many other mullahs should understand that they're better at religious discussion than at political debate."

The other top vote-getter in Tehran is Abu Turabi-Fard, also a supporter of the president. Mr. Turabi-Fard is a former prisoner of war, who never played a political role and who now heads a charity organization in charge of reintegrating former POWs into Iranian society.

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