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Last Updated: Saturday, 18 June, 2005, 21:33 GMT 22:33 UK
Iran reformers face quandary
By Pam O'Toole
BBC News

In Iran, two candidates are going forward to an unprecedented second round in Iran's presidential elections after a closely fought contest.

They are a former President, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani - often described as a pragmatic conservative - and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the hardline conservative mayor of Tehran.

Iranian presidential candidate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Mr Amhadinejad's strong showing was completely unpredicted
It was no surprise that Mr Rafsanjani topped the polls.

A former president, a pillar of Iran's Islamic system and seen as the second most powerful man in the country after the Supreme Leader, he has been regarded as the frontrunner throughout the campaign.

However, Mr Ahmadinejad was originally regarded as a rank outsider.

Unofficial polls before the election suggested all three conservative hardline candidates, including Mr Ahmadinejad, were trailing behind the main reformist candidate, Mostafa Moin.

The conservatives' main hope was expected to be the former police chief, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf.

The result came as a surprise even to Interior Ministry officials administering the polls. During the vote count, Deputy Interior Minister Mahmoud Mirlohi said: "It has been a completely unpredictable election."

Reformist setback

The result is a major blow to Iran's reformists.

They will now be trying to work out where they went wrong - and where the conservatives got it right.

Those who called for a boycott of the polls - including dissidents and the main student organisation - said that boycott damaged Mr Moin's chances.

Former Iranian presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi
Mr Karroubi alleged money influenced the result
Overall turnout was estimated at just over 60%.

Certainly the conservatives appear to have used their huge network of mosques in the country to help mobilise core support for Mr Ahmadinejad.

He is also thought to have benefited from the backing of hardline militiamen and influential clerics with the ability to influence voters.

But the man who came in third, Mehdi Karroubi, alleges other factors were also at work.

"There has been bizarre interference," he told a news conference. "Money has changed hands."

He appealed to Iran's Supreme Leader to appoint a committee to investigate the activities of the Guardian Council - an unelected conservative constitutional watchdog - as well as the Interior Ministry, the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij militia.

Earlier in the week the Interior Ministry had asked the Guardian Council to prevent the military and the Basij from being present at polling stations, for fear of influencing voters.

The Guardian Council rejected that call.

Islamic values

As for the next round of campaigning, the conservatives are likely to be able to remobilise the same level of core support next week.

The challenge for them will be how to attract more people to vote for a candidate who is regarded as ultra-conservative.

Iranian presidential candidate Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani
Will reformers now rally behind the pragmatic Mr Rafsanjani?
Mr Ahmadinejad's campaign so far has focussed strongly on Islamic values and ideology.

It remains to be seen if he will change his approach in the hope of expanding his vote bank.

Mr Rafsanjani's camp is likely to concentrate on persuading disillusioned reformist supporters to turn out, arguing that he is now the candidate most likely to represent their interests.

There are already indications that some reformists and moderate conservatives are considering backing him to block a hardline conservative victory.

However, conversely, some analysts argue that some voters may become more apathetic if they believe Mr Karroubi's allegations of vote-rigging.

Bridge builder

Mr Rafsanjani's campaign so far has concentrated on presenting him as a centrist, the only person capable of building bridges between Iran's hardline conservatives and disillusioned reformists, improving ties with the US and resolving the standoff with the West over Iran's controversial nuclear programme.

Western governments are refraining from commenting on what is seen as an internal Iranian matter.

Nevertheless, they will be watching next week's run-off elections closely.

They may fear that a hardline conservative victory would make it less likely that Iran will consider a rapprochement with its old enemy, the United States - and could toughen Tehran's stand in negotiations with three European Union countries over its nuclear programme.

However, it is also questionable how much leeway the new president might have on these two issues - ultimately, it is the Supreme Leader and his hardline allies who are likely to call the shots.




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See Iranians turning out to vote in the first round



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