Saturday, June 11, 2005

Iran's dual governing system breeds voter apathy

A dizzying array of campaign posters across this sprawling city promises Iranian voters a brighter, freer future in the most contested presidential race in Islamic Republic history.

But it's unlikely that any of the eight candidates vying in June 17 elections to replace President Mohammad Khatami, who can't run for a third term, will win the kind of victory that swept Khatami to office in 1997 and 2001 with hopes of political and social change.

Voter apathy is threatening to deliver a low turnout, and recent polls indicate that none of the candidates, which include clerics, generals, a doctor and Tehran's mayor, is likely to garner the 50 percent needed to avoid a run-off.

It's not the candidates who are the problem, said Azadeh Shakibah, a 24-year-old university student in Tehran's upper-middle-class Tajrish neighborhood. It's that she and many others in this nation of 70 million feel that voting no longer makes a difference in Iran's dual system of government, in which un-elected clerics can veto whatever elected leaders do.

"Nearly 27 years we've had them thinking that people are like sheep," Shakibah chided. "No more."

A survey by the Iranian Students Opinion Poll Center published Thursday in the Iran Daily newspaper found that the front-runner, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, is favored by barely 28 percent of the respondents. The heir to the Khatami reformist legacy, former Cabinet Minister Mostafa Moin, trailed with less than 11 percent, according to the poll of 4,738 eligible Iranian voters in Tehran and 10 provincial capitals.

Iran's hardline cleric urges high turnout

A leading hardline cleric urged Iranians on Friday to turn out in force for presidential elections next week, warning that a low turnout would be a defeat for the Islamic republic.

Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati refrained from endorsing any of the eight men vying for the job in June 17 polls, but called on people to defy Iran's "enemies" by ensuring a high turnout.

"The prestige of the Islamic republic depends on your votes. It is our religious and political duty to vote," Jannati told worshippers at Friday prayers at Tehran University. "Your votes will make the country stronger."

The clerical establishment has been trying to overcome apathy and disillusionment among voters, particularly young Iranians, over the slow pace of President Mohammad Khatami's reforms since his landslide election wins in 1997 and 2001.

Khatami is barred from standing for a third consecutive term.

Half the country's 67 million people are under 25 and the minimum voting age is 15. But many have indicated they will not vote.

Jannati said the country's enemies, a reference to the United States, had been trying to discourage Iranian voters through the "bombardment of hostile propaganda," aimed at questioning the Islamic states' legitimacy.

"If you want to make America angry, make queues at voting booths," Jannati said.

Russia's Entente With Iran May Backfire

Russia has helped Iran to build a nuclear power plant and has agreed to supply plutonium to fuel it. The United States is opposed to the deal because the spent fuel can be used to manufacture weapons-grade plutonium.

Under the accord between Russia and Iran signed in February, Russia will supply nearly 100 tons of nuclear fuel for the massive plutonium reactor it helped build near the southwestern Iranian city of Bushehr. Iran has agreed to return spent nuclear fuel rods to Russia to ensure they will not be converted for military use. But Ilan Berman, an analyst at the American Foreign Policy Council, says the Bushehr power plant is only a public face for a more comprehensive Iranian nuclear program.

“What the Russians are doing with Iran in Bushehr is very much a footnote to the larger Iranian development effort, says Mr. Berman. "That development effort is moving forward as a result of the assistance of Russian scientists and the help that Russia has provided in the past to the Iranian nuclear program. But the Bushehr facility is in many ways the smokescreen for this because Busher will be, more than anything else in the nuclear program, subject to international scrutiny. But other facilities where cooperation is going on will not.”