Wednesday, February 10, 1999 Published at 13:23 GMT
Iran prepares for first-ever local elections
Twenty years after the establishment of the Islamic Republic in Iran, voters are being given the first chance to elect their own local councillors in what is seen as a major test for the country's reforming president, Mohammad Khatami.
Candidates will be standing for some 200,000 seats on new municipal and borough legislative bodies due to be elected on 26th February.
The formation of these councils was envisaged in the 1979 constitution but they have never been established.
The poll is being widely seen in Iran as an historic moment.
"This is the first time the country is going to hold elections to the city and village councils, which are indeed the crux of the democratic process," the English-language `Tehran Times' said in a leader.
"The nation is about to open a new chapter in the process of democracy, which in today's society is a vital instrument for achieving the betterment of mankind." This sentiment was echoed by Presidential Adviser Rajab Ali Marzu'i in comments in another newspaper piece.
"If the councils perform on a legal basis, the country will enter a new stage of civilization." The new councils will have political, social and economic responsibilities, and will elect town mayors - currently appointed by the Interior Ministry - for four-year terms in office.
An Iranian TV report added that they will also have tax-setting and collection powers, with control of their own budgets.
The vote comes almost two years after the election of President Khatami, who was swept into power on a massive wave of popular support in May 1997.
His campaign centred on establishing the rule of law, implementing the constitution, and the setting up of "civil society" .
The running of the current local elections and the turnout will be seen as significant indicators of his ability to deliver on his elections promises.
"The government has decided to carry out the provision of the constitution to prepare the ground for the people's presence on the social scene," Khatami said in a speech to Interior Ministry officials.
Heralding what will be a major change in the country's body politic, he said: "With the implementation of the provision on municipal councils, the people will be given the opportunity to restore their rights." This, he added, "will help remove the chronic mentality of law breaking.
The government and the people will lead the community forward by observing the limitations envisaged in the law." And he highlighted the significance which the local elections have for his administration.
"The government is as much concerned about the full restoration of the people's sovereignty as it is about the territorial integrity of the country." The run-up to the elections, however, has been marred by conflicts between conservatives and reformists in an increasingly tense political environment, evidenced by the recent spate of murders of liberal intellectuals. (A number of Information Ministry employees have been implicated in the killings and Information Minister Qorbanali Dorri-Najafabadi has resigned over the affair.) Differences emerged between the conservative-dominated Majlis, or parliament, and the Interior Ministry over the vetting of election candidates.
Khatami's supporters have claimed that screening boards have barred reformist candidates from standing in previous elections.
The same accusation has been levelled at a Majlis vetting body operating with regard to these local elections.
In an attempt to block this, however, Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari has insisted that his own ministry's vetting board should be the final arbiter in this instance.
In a challenge to the Majlis, he said that the rejection of candidates by the parliamentary body could only be upheld when backed by documentary evidence of unsuitability according to the law.
Now, a deal appears to have been struck between the two camps by a five-member arbitration panel.
Under its guidelines, candidates rejected by the Majlis will be allowed to stand as long as they make a public declaration in support of the principle of velayat-e faqih - the supreme rule of a jurisconsult (currently Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i).
In an address, Khamene'i himself stepped in to the dispute, calling on both sides to stop their quarrelling.
Talking to university students, he said: "My advice to the youth is to pay no attention whatsoever to these so-called factional disputes.
My advice to the factions is what I have said several times before and that is: Stop" .
Despite the apparent deal, not everyone will be involved in the election process.
The liberal opposition grouping Freedom Movement of Iran, led by Ebrahim Yazdi, is being refused permission to present candidates.
Minister Musavi-Lari refused to even recognize its existence as an official party and the `Tehran Times' quoted arbitration panel member and First Vice-President Hasan Habibi as saying that the Freedom Movement would not be allowed to take part in the local election process.
But an indication of possible high public interest in the local elections is the appearance of a number of national figures, previously unconnected with politics, as candidates.
Among those standing in Tehran are Mohammad Khakpur of the national football team, and the internationally-acclaimed film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf.
In addition, to date a number of prominent women have put themselves forward for the elections.
They include Shahla Habibi, adviser to former President Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, and the journalist Jamileh Kadivari.
The local elections, then, can be seen as a milestone in President Khatami's reform programme and a highly important juncture in his conflict with conservatives.
These elections may herald a radical change in the balance of power and have major repercussions for the future of the country.
In the words of Khatami: "Our slogan was that in a civil society, one is free to think and to raise different issues.
"It is the people who should make the final judgment."
BBC Monitoring (http://www.monitor.bbc.co.uk), based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.