In Iran: Hope battles apathy

Presidential candidates struggle to convince disillusioned voters to go to the polls on Friday.

Politics of violence can mean politics as usual in Iran. But the cuts and black eye sustained by reform strategist Behzad Nabavi - attacked by 30 hard-line militants last Thursday in the holy city of Qum - are being taken by reformers as a sign of rising fortunes in a lackluster campaign.

Buffeted by public disdain and predictions of defeat at presidential polls this Friday, Iran's once-popular reformers say that several "orchestrated" attacks on their meetings by militants prove that they remain a political force.

A recent, unverifiable jump in poll numbers for reform candidate Mustafa Moin, a former culture and education minister, is making conservatives jittery, they argue.

"These actions reveal the nature of our opponents ... [but] maybe we should thank the [militants] for these incidents," jokes Mr. Nabavi. "People tell me: 'If they had killed you, Moin would win 100 percent.' "

But voter apathy and a partial boycott may foil moderate hopes. Though Iranians are at a political crossroads - the vote takes place under the shadow of US suspicions about Iran's nuclear program, and talk of an eventual US or Israeli military strike - half of Iran's 48 million eligible voters are expected to stay home, disillusioned with the unfulfilled promises of democracy and rule of law that once galvanized a huge turnout for outgoing president Mohammad Khatami.

"There is a thick layer of apathy smothering everything," says a veteran Iranian political observer. "Somehow, inactivity and doing nothing is seen [by many] as the most effective way to struggle."

In further violence, at least eight people were killed and 36 injured Sunday in four bomb attacks in the southwestern city of Ahvaz. An official told Reuters that the attackers were trying to disrupt the vote. But Ahvaz was the scene of violent protests in April after reports that the government was planning to relocate non-Arabs there to reduce Arab strength in the area. The government denied the reports.

Limited choices

With more than 1,000 potential candidates disqualified, Iranians will choose between front-runner Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani - a pragmatic conservative who polls twice the support of his nearest rival - four hard-line candidates with military credentials, and two reformers.

None has captured popular imagination, Iranians say, and only Mr. Rafsanjani, an inveterate dealmaker and two-time president who has been at the center of politics since the 1979 Islamic revolution, even appears presidential.

"Iranians are desperate for reason to hope," says a Western diplomat, which is why Rafsanjani, despite charges of corruption and links to political murders, appears to have so much support. "All the campaigns have the most fantastic theories about why they're doing so well."

Rafsanjani and his rivals have dumped the language of revolutionary Iran in favor of inclusive, liberal messages aimed at the youthful majority - the same constituency Khatami once tapped so effectively.

"[N]obody is willing to [believe] anything but moderation and reality," Rafsanjani told supporters packed into a mosque Saturday night. "Don't be worried about radicalism; this is [just] a [passing] wave.

"People, and especially youths, have all information before their eyes. You can't use censorship," he said, sparking applause.

Rafsanjani is not known to have the support of supreme religious leader Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, who is believed to see Rafsanjani as a rival.

"This is very unusual; there is no regime candidate, so we are seeing the fragmentation of the conservative bloc," says a veteran Iranian political observer.

Many Iranians say they will boycott the vote to protest conservative success in blocking Khatami's reforms for years, and to delegitimize the result.

Pundits are predicting a second-round runoff between Rafsanjani and a hard-liner, or Moin - in which case those "sleeping" reformists who do not cast ballots in the first round might deliver Moin a surprise victory.

That risk worries conservatives, who are increasingly vocal about how four hard-line candidates are diluting the vote.

Hussein Shariatmadari, a representative of Khamenei, has told the four candidates to lock themselves in a mosque until they can decide on a single choice, adding publicly that defeat is certain unless some pull out.

"Should the four [fundamentalist] candidates withdraw in favor of one of them, their victory will be definite," Mr. Shariatmadari's newspaper, Kayhan, editorialized.

The hard-line Jomhuri Eslami newspaper added its voice in a Saturday editorial, decrying how the current candidates are ignoring revolutionary ideals for their own self-serving ends.

"Not only do they forget about the important things in the country, but the [devotees of the revolution] are ... showing the authorities as incapable, as traitors to each other, and [that they] consider conspiracies and foreign enemies to be myths," the paper wrote. "We confess that we never predicted a day when enemies would succeed in making the faithful fight against the children of the revolution."

Conservative balancing act

Those divisions make the balancing act more difficult for conservatives, who have long equated voter turnout with legitimacy. They also know that a very full turnout - with the voting age set from 15 years, and more than 60 percent of Iranians under 30 years old - would probably favor Moin.

"If you want to make America angry, make long lines at voting booths," Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, head of the powerful Guardian Council, said during Friday prayers at Tehran University, sparking chants of "Death to America" from several thousand faithful. "Cast your vote, as each vote means death to America."

But few are predicting the scale of turnouts that neared 70 percent in years past.

Reformist strategists know they can win easily if reform-minded Iranians decide to vote, and not stay at home. They also suggest that, though Rafsanjani consistently wins high poll numbers, his negative ratings can be twice as high as his positive numbers.

While Nabavi nurses his wounds, other reform camp operatives are trying to get out the vote. Those campaigning in the provinces report a shift of people away from a boycott, and toward support for Moin.

"If we lose this election, it is very difficult for Iran to continue on the road to democracy," says Hamid Reza Jalaiepour, a reform strategist who has been stumping outside Tehran for Moin. "If the presidency falls into the hands of the conservatives, it's very difficult to keep the [political] changes, because the state is very big, and can enter into all aspects of life - it will be military totalitarianism."

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