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Big test for Iranian democracy

By Jon Leyne
BBC News, Tehran

Iran boasts that it is the most democratic country in the Middle East. It's a claim worth examining, as the presidential election approaches.

Isfahan, Iran
No-one challenging the basic tenets of Iran's Islamic Republic could stand

On 12 June, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be challenged by three contenders: Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and Mohsen Rezai.

Those are the only four candidates allowed on the ballot paper. The remainder of the 475 candidates who registered, including 42 women, were ruled ineligible by the powerful Guardian Council.

By most standards that would suggest a less than open contest.

And many more candidates may have been deterred even from registering, by the likelihood that they would be disqualified.

Certainly it is true that the choice is restricted.

Surprise results

No candidate who challenges the basic tenets of the Islamic Republic would be allowed to stand, even though there are plenty of Iranians who might vote for them.

At the same time, none of those disqualified by the Guardian Council was seen as a serious contender in any case.

Ahmadinejad (left) and Mousavi (right) get ready for a live debate, 3 June, 2009
Candidates have been given equal air time during the campaign

And the election of President Mohammad Khatami in 1997, and of President Ahmadinejad in 2005, were both unexpected.

So if people behind the scenes are trying to fix the election, they are either not very good at it, or they are afraid to be seen to be going too strongly against the will of the people.

Free and fair elections, of course, include many elements. And there's a strong suspicion that the government machine is behind Mr Ahmadinejad.

'Encouraged'

There's much discussion over whether the Revolutionary Guards, the Basij militia, and government employees like teachers, will be "encouraged" to vote for Mr Ahmadinejad.

Some of his opponents have had problems getting permission to hold rallies.

While former President Khatami was still a candidate, one provincial governor refused permission for a visit, on the rather transparent grounds that he would cause traffic jams!

KEY BACKGROUND

The international media watchdog, Reporters Without Borders, rates Iran close to the bottom of its world press freedom table.

Most newspapers support the government. All television is state controlled.

Until the election began, Iranian TV was fairly openly behind the president.

However, during the campaign, all four candidates have been given equal airtime for a series of broadcasts, campaign videos, and one-on-one debates.

Many Iranians do have access to satellite television, even though it is illegal.

Many more Iranians are avid users of the internet, though that is also heavily censored.

But the country has a new digital divide, between those with access to outside information, and those mostly poorer people reliant on state-controlled outlets.

Does it matter anyway? There's a view that, as his title suggests, the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, wields the real power in the Islamic Republic, particularly over foreign policy and the nuclear issue.

Ali Khamenei
Iran's Supreme Leader has immense authority and the final say in key decisions

But as so often with Iran, it's a bit more complicated than that.

Though he does hold a position of immense authority, Ayatollah Khamenei is not considered by many people to be even the most senior cleric in Iran.

So he faces pressure from religious leaders who believe they hold more religious authority. Partly as a result, he has built up a power base in the Revolutionary Guards.

While the Guards report directly to the leader, they also have their own interests that must be taken into account.

The commercial elite - the "Bazaaris" - also have an almost legendary power, derived from the belief that they helped to overthrow the Shah's regime. A recent strike by Bazaaris over new taxes brought a swift change of policy from the government.

Distant leader

Then, of course, there is the parliament, the Majlis, with its powerful speaker Ali Larijani. And former President Hashemi Rafsanjani continues to be influential, partly through his chairmanship of two important institutions, the Expediency Council and the Assembly of Experts.

Pro-nuclear demonstration
Feelings run high on the nuclear issue

The leader's role, in any case, is to maintain his distance, not to interfere too directly in the day-to-day running of the country. How much he is involved in individual decisions, or in vetting major speeches, is a matter shrouded in mystery.

Above all, evidence suggests that different presidents produce different policies. Despite many restrictions placed on him, the "reformist" President Khatami helped to liberalise social and cultural life, and attempted to reach out for a dialogue with the West.

And while it is always said that the leader has the final say on the nuclear programme, it is surely no coincidence that it has been dramatically speeded up under the presidency of Mr Ahmadinejad.

The nuclear programme has now gained such momentum that it is hard to see any new Iranian president stopping or suspending it. Neither will Iran's next president have the authority to change dramatically the Iranian system of government, or its relations with the outside world.

But within those limitations, this election could substantially change the direction of this country. And Iranians are just beginning to realise it.

It appears that more and more Iranians, inspired by strong views for or against President Ahmadinejad, want to have their say on 12 June in the country that boasts that it is the most democratic in the Middle East.



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