A hollow vote

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The Times – Leader Article: When Iran votes for a new President on Friday, the real question is not whether the winning candidate will be a pragmatist or a hardliner, but whether the election has democratic validity at all. After a call last week by the conservative head of Iran’s Council of Guardians for a huge turnout to declare “death to America”, most Iranians, and especially a restless younger generation, regard the contest as mired in the clichés of the past and a device by which a clerical coterie hopes to perpetuate its power. The Times

Iran’s election will do little to get the country moving

Leader Article

When Iran votes for a new President on Friday, the real question is not whether the winning candidate will be a pragmatist or a hardliner, but whether the election has democratic validity at all. After a call last week by the conservative head of Iran’s Council of Guardians for a huge turnout to declare “death to America”, most Iranians, and especially a restless younger generation, regard the contest as mired in the clichés of the past and a device by which a clerical coterie hopes to perpetuate its power.

The turnout may well fall below the 50 per cent who voted last year in the legislative elections. Before that vote there was widespread anger at the decision by the council to disqualify arbitrarily more than 2,000 candidates. It did so on the spurious grounds that they did not support Islamic principles, but it was actually because they were reformers, determined to cleanse a corrupt establishment and limit the powers of religious vigilantes.

This time the council was equally afraid that a “liberal” candidate would win massive support and renew the failed attempt of the outgoing President Khatami to challenge its power. Taking no chances, the council disqualified 1,000 candidates from the presidential vote. The consequent uproar and threat of a boycott so discredited the mullahs, however, that Ali Khamenei, the wily “Supreme Leader”, told the council to reconsider. As a result, there are now two candidates who could be described as “reformers” among a list of eight candidates. Neither has much of a chance against Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, the former President who is standing again and has cleverly positioned himself so that both the clergy and the reformers believe he is secretly one of them.

What is clear is that, although the level of debate and engagement is more vigorous and genuine than in most of Iran’s neighbours, the campaign has seemed largely irrelevant to young Iranians. They want a fundamental change in the country’s anti-Western and anti-American fixation, an opening to the world culturally and economically, and an end to restrictions imposed in the name of Islam, but in fact manipulated for political ends. Even the former radicals who toppled the Shah are disillusioned.

The campaign, limited by censorship and the fear of arrest for the outspoken, has barely touched on the most pressing issues. These are: the future of Iran’s nuclear programme; relations with America; the pressing need to liberalise an economy dominated by cartels and monopolies; the plight of the families of the 500,000 “martyrs” who were killed in the Iran-Iraq war; high unemployment; and the challenges of rapid urbanisation and high birth rates. No reformist candidate can discuss the underlying causes without touching on the suffocating role of the clerical oligarchy. And though Mr Rafsanjani may, if he wins, find a way of breaking the political stalemate that has hampered even minimal reform, there is little chance of a proper and open debate. A phoney election is unlikely to be a turning point for a troubled nation and a capable people.

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