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Thursday, 24 February, 2000, 15:35 GMT
Iran's unique election
By Jim Muir in Tehran
Iran's sixth general election has produced a situation unique in the Islamic Republic's 21-year history.
For the first time it has a legislature committed to democratic reforms and the creation of a civil society in tune with a president dedicated to the same goals.
"I'm so glad that I lived to see this day, and to vote in a free election," said one elderly Tehran resident, thrilled at the reformist victory.
She went on to qualify the word "free" as a relative concept, given the restrictions imposed on candidates.
They all have to demonstrate their loyalty to the Islamic Republic and swear allegiance to the system which gives the Supreme Leader sweeping powers.
Nearly 700 candidates were eliminated by the selection process, almost all of them from the reformist camp.
But even so, there is no doubt the elections were the most open since the revolution. The eliminations were nothing like as drastic as in the past.
This poll was unique in other respects too. For the first time, clearly identifiable political parties with lists of candidates and explicitly formulated policies were competing for the 290 seats.
The effect of this was immediately clear in the results. In Tehran for example, all 30 seats were almost certain to be decided in the first round of voting.
In the last election four years ago, 28 had to go to a run-off in a second round.
For the same reason, the new Majlis will contain much fewer independent MPs than the outgoing one, because many voters opted for the party lists.
The pro-reform mood of the country was clear long before polling began.
It was not created by President Mohammad Khatami in May 1997. It was already there, and lifted him to office on a tidal wave that took him and his advisers by surprise.
If there was any surprise in the result of this general election, it was again in the scale of the reformist victory and the conservative defeat.
"Yes, the results were better than we were expecting," said Mohammad Reza Khatami, the president's younger brother, who spearheaded the reformist campaign.
"But not much. We knew what was happening in Iranian society. So people outside the country were more surprised than we were."
The other surprise which stunned almost everybody was the magnitude of the personal defeat suffered by one of the towering figures from the revolutionary past - Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Twice president, twice speaker of parliament, he made the drastic mistake of standing in the Tehran constituency, and trailed humiliatingly in 29th position in the vote count.
He was the top candidate on the list of all the rightwing factions.
His acute discomfort aptly symbolised how much things have changed in Iran in the last few years. It was an indictment both of his own presidency, and a clear signal to the system in which he has played such a major part.
"I hope they get the message," said one reformist sympathiser.
There was no doubt that the 18 reformist factions grouped in the umbrella "2nd of Khordad Front" ran a much more effective election campaign than the dispirited right-wingers.
During the brief week that electioneering was permitted, the reformists staged many boisterous rallies in addition to assiduously canvassing in the universities and colleges which are so important in Iranian politics.
By contrast, the conservatives managed only a few tame and ill-attended election speeches and public meetings.
The impression they gave was that they had lost hope before they even began. They were certainly not moving with the times.
Their defeat will leave them with less than a quarter of the seats in the chamber.
Some of the more moderate conservative deputies who lost their jobs blamed poor election tactics.
But the roots of the rightwing disaster ran much deeper than that, deep into the demographics of a rapidly changing society.
Those who lived through the Islamic revolution 21 years ago are now a minority.
A huge population bulge is just now passing through their mid-teens, hitting voting age, higher education, and very soon, the job market.
This vast army of young people turned out in their millions to vote for the reformists. Their very existence represents an enormous challenge to the system.
Millions of women too must have voted the same way, hoping for the better lot that the reformists promise.
Above all, this general election was an adjustment of politics to demographics. Under the rule of the clergy-dominated right-wing conservatives, the gap was becoming dangerously big.
"This was the second warning signal to those who do not care about people and their ideas," said Fazel Hamedani, a reformist candidate who failed to win a seat.
Even in the spiritual heart of the Islamic establishment, the holy city of Qom, the leading vote-winner was a reformist.
"The people's vote in Qom was a big No to monopolists who thought they could decide for the people without consulting them,'' said Taha Hashemi, one of the city's incumbent MPs who lost his seat.
''The right-wing faction in the new Majlis will have to adopt more moderate positions."
Like President Khatami's election in 1997, these polls were an unmistakable demonstration of people power.
Despite his overwhelming mandate, Mr Khatami has only been able to score limited achievements because of entrenched opposition from hardline conservatives who hold many of the levers of real power, much of it unofficial, unelected and unaccountable.
Now, at least, one of those obstacles has been removed.
The outgoing parliament had obstructed him wherever possible, holding up legislation and impeaching one of his closest associates, the interior minister, Abdollah Nouri.
President Khatami can now count on the co-operation of a Majlis in which a clear majority will be held by his own supporters - led by his brother, who came out well ahead of the field in the Tehran constituency.
This is both an opportunity and a challenge. So far, the president has been in office but not in power.
His supporters have blamed the rightists for blocking him. Now the onus is on him and his government to perform - especially on the country's dire economic crisis, which is affecting everybody.
"The economy is in pretty bad shape. People are going to expect this parliament to organise itself and deal with the economic issue," said Hadi Semati, professor of politics at Tehran University.
"So far, it's been all politics. The reformists are going to be in a majority, people are going to start asking them to do a serious job.
"President Khatami will be in a difficult position in the sense of having actually to deliver on some of the campaign promises that have been made. The honeymoon period is going to start eroding.
"They'll have to really get down to work and put aside all the factional infighting," he added.
For the moment, Mohammad Reza Khatami and his colleagues in the Islamic Participation Party envisage early legislation to reform the election and press laws, which have been used by the rightwing against reformists.
They insist all legislation will be in line with the constitution, elements of which have never, they say, been properly applied.
The right-wingers are at present reeling from the blow. But it would be naive not to expect them to regroup and do their best to derail the reform process by whatever means they can muster.
"They have got many bases still: they have the judicial system, all the religious institutions, indirectly they have influence on military forces, the security apparatus - the contest is far from over," said Hamid-reza Jalaipour, a journalist who was disqualified as a candidate.
But Mr Khatami Jnr and his colleagues are hoping that the display of public opinion will persuade those in unelected power to bend with the reformist winds.
They are also aware of the danger of creating a backlash by trying to move too fast.
"I think the reform will be done gradually, step by step," Mr Khatami said.
"You can see in the judiciary there are already some reforms, and I think public opinion will push all the authorities to say yes to the reformers."
No doubt there will be many difficulties and crises ahead. But there is no doubt that, with a majority of reformists, fewer clerics, and with the average age of deputies going down by at least 15 years, Iran's sixth parliament has come closer to being in tune with the realities and needs of Iranian society.
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