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Last Updated: Saturday, 21 February, 2004, 03:59 GMT
Poll changes streets of Tehran
By Stuart Hughes
BBC, Tehran

It is not every day that a foreign journalist with a microphone and a camera can walk up to an ordinary Iranian and ask about their country's political system - then simply walk away afterwards.

Tehran resident  Zohreh Sadri
Residents were unusually free to talk on election day
On any normal day, gauging opinion on the streets of Tehran would instantly attract the attention of one of the many branches of Iran's security forces - the Revolutionary Guard, the police, or undercover intelligence officers.

But election day for the seventh Iranian parliament, or Majlis, is no ordinary day.

More than 200 foreign journalists are reporting on the elections - and the authorities are eager to show their country in its best light.

At a polling station in the prosperous suburb of Niavaran, in northern Tehran, voters are eager to express their views, even if some are less willing to give their names or have their photographs taken.

Long lists of candidates hang along the walls of the polling stations. But the names of many would-be candidates are absent.

Prior to the election Iran's hardline Council of Guardians, an unelected watchdog, banned about 2,500 mostly reformist politicians from standing.

Voter views

The biggest reform party, already under pressure over its perceived failure to fulfil promises to liberalise Iranian society, decided not to field candidates.

Noushid Najafi
It's my right to vote, I want to vote, and that's why I've done it
Noushid Najafi
Many voters chose to follow suit, including translator Bahar Irani.

"The candidates standing only represent about 10% of the population," she told me.

"If the candidates don't represent the population then it's not a real election."

Bahar Irani had only turned up at the polling station to accompany her sister, Noushid Najafi.

Although blood relatives, the two share very different political views - one a reformist, the other deeply conservative, a fact highlighted by her flowing black chador covering her entire body.

"It's not because I've been tortured or anything like that I've chosen to vote," Noushid said.

"It's my right to vote, I want to vote, and that's why I've done it."

'Election sham'

For some Tehranis, though, the ideological divide between conservatives and reformists is a side issue.

Tehran student Ali Sami'ee
Whether we like it or not, the regime will be the overall winner
Ali Sami'ee
"All politicians are as bad as each other," said Zohreh Sadri.

"They only think of themselves and their own wallets - and that goes for those who vote for them as well.

"If the turnout is low it'll show that the politicians aren't representing the will of the people.

"The whole election is a sham."

That is a sentiment shared by Ali Sami'ee, a 22-year-old student.

"We do have a parliament here but as long as there is an unelected body like the Council of Guardians then parliament will basically be powerless," he said.

"Whether we like it or not, the regime will be the overall winner."

As I left Ali Sami'ee and walked away from the Niavaran polling booth he was immediately approached by a plainclothes intelligence officer and questioned about our conversation.

Old habits die hard in Iran - even on election day.





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