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Thursday, 10 February, 2000, 12:59 GMT
Poll test for Iran reformists
By Jim Muir in Tehran
The Islamic Republic of Iran's sixth general elections, to be held on 18 February, provide the next battleground in the continuing contest between reformists and conservatives within Iran's clerical regime.
The outcome may be blurred by the presence of many new independent members whose real affiliations may not be immediately clear.
President Mohammad Khatami's reform plans were often obstructed by the outgoing parliament, which impeached one of his key ministers and tried to do the same with another.
If the reformists can win control of the new Majlis, it will be an important gain for them.
But even if they do, it will not mean the end of the struggle. A good deal of power will remain in the hands of the conservatives, not least through their influence over the Council of Guardians, the body which scrutinises all legislation passed by the Majlis.
The elections will provide an important test of whether the reformist movement, which scored a stunning victory with President Khatami's surprise landslide election in May 1997, has been able to create a coherent vehicle to translate the national mood for change into tangible electoral gains.
The coalition includes the party most closely associated with President Khatami, the Islamic Iran Participation Front. Mr Khatami's younger brother, Muhammad-Reza, heads its Politburo.
It also includes a grouping of leftist clerics known as the Militant Clerics Association (MRM), as well as - uneasily - the centrist faction known as the Kargozaran or "Servants of Construction", associated with former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Ranged against them are the right-wing conservative groupings, including the current majority parliamentary faction, the Association of Militant Clergy (JRM).
The actual campaigning only lasts for a week, and stops two days before the polling on 18 February.
Much of the real battle has already taken place, in the struggle over the qualification and elimination of candidates by various vetting procedures, with overall responsibility lying with the conservative-dominated Council of Guardians.
But in the early stages, a total of 758 out of the 6860 hopefuls had been provisionally ruled out, more than half of them by the Council. Most if not all of them were from the reformist or left-wing camps.
While there were predictable cries of indignation, the reformists were quietly pleased that the disqualifications were in fact much less radical than in the past. They believed enough of their colleagues had survived the process to enable them to gain control of the new Majlis.
"Nobody would have believed that the Council of Guardians would qualify me - but they did," said Ahmad Borghani, a close associate of President Khatami who was one of the surviving reformist candidates.
"The level of disqualifications was much lower than before, for a variety of reasons. I think the Second of Khordad Front will win a majority, but I don't know how big it will be."
Another big difference is that the election climate is dominated by President Khatami's biggest achievement since taking office: the extraordinary vivacity of the Iranian press.
Many taboos have been broken, and virtually no one is immune to ruthless scrutiny and often scathing attack in the public press.
One man who discovered this - perhaps to his surprise and cost - is Mr Rafsanjani, one of the few personalities whose candidacy is dominating the election.
Since he threw his hat into the ring in December, his two-term record as President has been subjected to unprecedented criticism from leftist writers and commentators in the press.
Despite his eminence, it is not a forgone conclusion that he will succeed and become speaker of the new Majlis, a post he has also held twice before, as has been widely predicted.
Part of the understanding may have been the premature release from prison of the popular former Mayor of Tehran, Gholamhossein Karbaschi, who was freed after serving less than half the two-year sentence he was given on embezzlement charges. At the time of his imprisonment last year, Mr Karbaschi was secretary-general of the Servants of Construction.
Although he may keep a low public profile, his release is expected to bolster Mr Rafsanjani's campaign and help smooth over differences both within the Constructionists, and between them and their electoral allies in the reformist camp.
Conservative candidates such as Mohamad Reza Bahonar believe they still have a good chance of winning a majority. "But if not, I don't think any faction will hold a decisive advantage," he said.
Like many others, he believes that changes in Iranian society - especially the arrival on the scene of a huge new generation of young people - must be reflected in the makeup of the new Majlis, whichever way the factional balance tilts.
"We expect a lot of new faces in the next parliament," he said.
"We hope there will be more experienced, educated young people. All the political parties in Iran should be revised to become more in tune with the people and their concerns."
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