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.

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."

Conservatives disagree

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.

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.

"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."

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