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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 March 2008, 11:39 GMT
Iran bans make for flat election
By Jon Leyne
BBC News, Tehran

The election rally was a desultory affair. It was the last one as campaigning ended in Iran ahead of Friday's general election.

Leading conservative Mohammad Hassan Abutorabi Fard at a rally for the the United Front of Principalists
Conservatives are expected to cement control of the parliament
But barely 100 people gathered in the private car-parking space under a small block of flats.

The interior ministry would not let them hold the meeting in public.

Hardly any of the audience were women. They feel even more disconnected from politics than Iranian men.

And the party itself, the Islamic Iran Participation Front, has no candidates anyway.

They were all disqualified weeks ago, because of their alleged lack of Islamic credentials.

This is no fringe party. It had the single largest group of members in the Iranian parliament until just four years ago.

But this year the "reformists" - the more liberal-minded, pro-Western parties - have had their legs pulled from under them.

Many of their candidates have been disqualified, many more have not even bothered to put their names forward because they know there is no point.

Instead of howls of protest, the reformists seem to have lost the will to fight.

No talking to foreigners

When I approached one of the speakers at this rally, he said it was not "expedient" to speak to the BBC right now.

Hardly surprising when one reformist MP has been accused of treason, just for giving an interview to the Voice of America.

Another was criticised simply for speaking to the German ambassador.

Reformists hand out leaflets on a Tehran street
Reformists have not vanished but they appear defeated in advance

The reformists have not found a way to fight back against a system that now seems stacked against them.

Many of their supporters will simply not go out and vote in the parliamentary elections on Friday. In fact, here in the smart suburbs of north Tehran it's hard to find anyone who is going to vote.

Out in the more conservative provinces and in the villages it may be different. But even there, many of those who put their hopes in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the presidential elections nearly three years ago are disillusioned, particularly over his handling of the economy.

Mixed meassge

State television has been broadcasting stirring music and pictures of happy voters. The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has been telling Iranians it is their Islamic duty to vote.

Foreign governments and international media, including the BBC, have been attacked for trying to undermine this patriotic effort.

Party worker hands out election leaflets in Teheran
Some leaflets were handed out but campaigning was half-hearted

Yet the government itself is also sending mixed messages. Most election posters have been banned. The official campaign only lasted a week - including one day which was a public holiday.

The election itself is being held less than a week before the country shuts down for the Iranian new year holiday of Norouz. At the moment, most Iranians are more interested in shopping than politics.

On the streets of Tehran, there has been almost no evidence an election is about to happen.

Conservative or conservative

The suspicion is that the authorities are in two minds about what sort of turnout they want.

They need enough voters to endorse the legitimacy of what they still insist is a democratic process.

But too high a turnout might encourage those who have given up on the government to go out and register their protest, if they can find a like-minded candidate who has not been disqualified.

Some observers mischievously suggest the turnout has already been decreed as a safe 51% - the same as last time.

Maybe that is unfair. But the result certainly seems entirely predictable.

Control of parliament is almost certain to remain with the conservatives, or "principalists" as they prefer to call themselves - how can you be a conservative and a revolutionary at the same time, after all?

Precisely which of the conservatives will win is a more complicated question - fiendishly complicated in fact.

There are five main groupings or "lists" battling for seats. But many candidates have been endorsed by two or more groups.

Some candidates are even standing for apparently opposing groupings.

How voters are expected to make their choice is not clear.

But the evidence of this parliamentary election is that that choice is increasingly limited, and increasingly unimportant.

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