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Last Updated: Friday, 7 March 2008, 12:42 GMT
Iran vote may strengthen Ahmadinejad
By Jon Leyne
BBC News, Tehran

Iran goes to the polls on 14 March. Whatever the headlines say, this will not be a referendum on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's rule.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad making a speech in front of a poster of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Mr Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader are likely to gain
And with many of the more liberal "reformist" candidates disqualified from standing, the old template of "reformists versus conservatives" no longer holds.

The Iranian government is in a bunker mentality, with less and less room for even the mildest forms of dissent.

There is a big shift in power towards the Revolutionary Guards - some have described it as a "silent coup" - and a reduction in the power of the clerics.

And the position on human rights continues to deteriorate - more executions, closure of newspapers, and arrests of dissidents.

While the foreign press has been invited in for the election, the government tightly controls those here on a permanent basis.

Visas and residence permits are hard to come by. Six months ago there were three British newspaper correspondents here. Now, there are none.

But this closing down of the system has been done quietly. Over the last year there has been hardly a single public protest against the government.

International concern has been muted. The Nobel Peace Prize-winning human rights lawyer, Shirin Ebadi, says the world has forgotten about human rights in Iran.

The system

This is not a free and fair democratic election.

More than a third of prospective candidates have been disqualified, many more did not even bother to put their names forward, and of course there is no free media for a proper debate.

The reformists - who under President Khatami held substantial power only three years ago - are in retreat, if not a positive rout
But the election is not completely undemocratic either. Voters do have a choice between a limited range of candidates.

Low voter turnout, especially in Tehran, will probably show how discontented people are with the options on offer.

But it is a silent discontent. There is little active opposition to the system, let alone open protests. Those who do vote will find themselves choosing, largely, between different shades of conservatism.

Retreat of reformists

The reformists - who under President Khatami held substantial power only three years ago - are in retreat, if not a positive rout.

Many of those likely to be elected are former members of the Revolutionary Guards... These will be hardliners, intensely loyal to the system and to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei
Many of their candidates have been disqualified, officially because of lack of loyalty to the Islamic system. Many more have not even bothered to stand.

They will be lucky to win more than 50 of the 290 parliamentary seats.

Few of the pragmatists who support former President Hashemi Rafsanjani are standing. The former president himself has been almost invisible recently.

Instead many of those likely to be elected are former members of the Revolutionary Guards, with fewer and fewer clerics in parliament.

That is a major change. These will be hardliners, intensely loyal to the system and to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.

And despite Mr Ahmadinejad's unpopularity, particularly in Tehran, his supporters could even end up with more seats in the parliament.

Prospects for president

The outcome might help indicate Mr Ahmadinejad's prospects for re-election in April 2009. But with the huge number of disqualifications, it is hard to see any result that would be a disastrous setback for him.

Iranian election staff register candidates for parliamentary elections (January 2008)
Election officials have been registering candidates for the 14 March vote
The Majlis already, broadly, has a majority of conservatives with no great personal loyalty to Mr Ahmadinejad, and has been quite critical of him.

Increasingly, observers here believe Mr Ahmadinejad has the support of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and so will be re-elected in the presidential poll next year.

Campaigning for the parliamentary poll officially started on 6 March, although there is little, so far, to see.

The government has only recently agreed to allow election posters. Do not expect a rally on every street corner.

It's the economy

For most people in Iran, the economy is much more important than President Ahmadinejad's focus on the nuclear programme.

Despite the president's promise to "put oil money on people's tables", life is getting tougher for many Iranians.

Inflation is now more than 20%. Unemployment and job insecurity are big problems. Economic mismanagement is as much to blame as international sanctions, though Iran's financial system is facing increasing problems because of the embargo.

Most people on the street will declare their support for a peaceful nuclear programme. It is not a big election issue. However, some opposition figures have criticised President Ahmadinejad's confrontational style of foreign policy.

Nevertheless, this election will probably produce a parliament more loyal, if not to the president, then certainly to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. It will be a parliament less likely to challenge the government on matters of foreign policy or human rights.

Those looking and hoping for major change in Iran are likely to be disappointed.



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