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The BBC's Jim Muir
"It is the first time an Iranian president has done better the second time around"
 real 56k

Jahangir Behrouz, Echo of Iran newspaper
"I do not expect very big changes in the near future"
 real 56k

Monday, 11 June, 2001, 12:16 GMT 13:16 UK
Poll boosts Khatami reform bid
Banner showing Iranian President Mohammad Khatami
The presidential poll was an unofficial referendum on reform
By Jim Muir in Tehran

With a clear popular mandate behind him to pursue his vision of democracy and freedom, Mohammad Khatami returns reinvigorated to the struggle with entrenched hardliners who have been obstructing his reform plans.

His supporters had portrayed the presidential poll as an unofficial referendum on reform, and that is what it was.

Unlike the 1997 election, in which Mr Khatami was a little-known underdog pitted against a major establishment-backed conservative figure, there can have been little element of protest in the record 21.6m votes cast for the embattled reformist leader on 8 June.

This time, he was the incumbent, and the main right-wing factions failed either to field or support their own candidate, knowing that he would lose heavily and that he might stimulate more votes for Mr Khatami.

Source of strength

His nine independent conservative rivals did not amount to a serious challenge. The runner-up, Ahmad Tavakoli, a former supply minister, took the bulk of the right-wing vote with 15% of the poll.

Pro-Khatami supporter celebrates
A record 21.6m votes were cast in the election
So the president re-elect can now go back to the hardliners emboldened by the knowledge that every ballot cast for him was a positive show of support, rather than a negative vote against someone else.

He will feel this as a source both of strength, and of obligation to serve the trust that has been placed in him.

"The people of Iran now expect the system and the government to take bigger steps to realise and consecrate their just demands and firm resolve," he said in a message to the nation after the results came out.

Mr Khatami will also be aware of the silent voice of those who refrained from voting.

His victory was impressive, but it was not an overwhelming national vote of confidence.

Vote for change

The turnout was actually more than a million less than 1997, although the electorate has swollen by 5m.

Altogether one-third of the potential voters - 14m people - stayed away, clearly signalling their despair with the system as a whole.

Ahmad Tavakoli
Ahmad Tavakkoli took the bulk of the right-wing vote
Add those abstentions to the half-million people who returned spoiled ballots, plus the 51% of the overall electorate who did turn out and voted for Khatami, and the inescapable conclusion is that 85% of Iranians above the voting age of 15 want change, either radical or gradual.

His supporters hope this clear message from the electorate will get through to the hardliners.

Through their control of such unelected bodies as the judiciary and the Council of Guardians (which among other things vets legislation), they have blocked and set back the reform process in every way they could.

Nobody expects the doors of change to fly open automatically because of this election.

Right-wing backlash?

But by reinforcing the trend of all other elections since Mr Khatami's stunning victory in 1997, it will generally strengthen his hand in his dealings with the recalcitrant right-wingers, whose support is clearly reduced to a maximum of 15% of the public.

The immediate effect will be to increase the pressure on the right-wing camp (which is by no means monolithic), with democratic elements in it feeling the need to get more in tune with the will of the people.

This will further isolate the even smaller minority of hardcore right-wingers who believe fundamentally that power and authority do not come from the people but from God, and that any means is justified to support and enforce that rule.

In the short term, there may be an angry backlash from the hardliners. Their first reaction came on the streets of Tehran when groups of furious Ansar Hezbollah (right-wing vigilantes) attacked and beat up jubilant Khatami supporters celebrating his victory on Saturday night.

Mr Khatami is not a man of confrontation and victory, but of quiet persuasion and unity.

In the coming months and years, he and his supporters will continue pressing their case on all fronts and suffering setbacks on many, but knowing that all the time out in society, the tide of history is moving inexorably in.

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See also:

10 Jun 01 | Middle East
Khatami hails landslide victory
10 Jun 01 | Middle East
Khatami victory soured by vigilantes
09 Jun 01 | Middle East
Khatami triumphs over conservatives
09 Jun 01 | Media reports
Iranian press assesses presidential poll
08 Jun 01 | Middle East
Analysis: Iran's political prisoners
08 Jun 01 | Middle East
In pictures: Iran goes to the polls
01 Jun 01 | Middle East
Iran election: People and policies
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