Marie Colvin – Times Online March 16, 2008
The hardline supporters of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the firebrand Iranian president, appeared to be heading for victory in parliamentary elections last night, despite earlier predictions that more pragmatic conservatives who favour a less confrontational approach to the West might triumph.
With half the 290 seats in the Majlis, or parliament, declared, Ahmadinejad’s backers had surged ahead with 57, compared with 40 for the moderate slate.
Analysts had forecast that the pragmatic conservatives led by Mohammed Bagher Qalibaf, the mayor of Tehran, and Ali Larijani, the former international negotiator on Iran’s nuclear programme, might win the day and temper Ahmadinejad’s radical policies.
Both men are considered to be possible challengers to the diminutive president in elections next year. When Qalibaf lost the 2005 presidential election, he replaced Ahmadinejad as mayor of Tehran. He has since used the office to advance his own 2009 campaign.
Larijani resigned as Iran’s chief negotiator with the International Atomic Energy Agency and made no secret that it was over disagreements with the president. He was said to have won a parliamentary seat in Qom, the city south of Tehran that is the headquarters of Iran’s religious establishment.
Ahmadinejad’s critics had hoped that, having been elected on promises to deliver oil revenues to the poor, he would be punished at the polls for high inflation and unemployment and a shortage of fuel.
Privately, they blame Iran’s increasing international isolation on the president’s fiery manner – he has said that Israel should be “wiped off the map” and vowed that Iran will not back down on its right to nuclear research.
Independent candidates running in third place in the election seemed determined to stand up to Ahmadinejad, said Abdul Rez Talebi, a retired air force pilot. “We have great problems with our youth, who have no chance of building a life,” he said. “We have problems with the ever increasing drug abuse and unemployment.”
He said the election of independents would “surely make a difference” in the run-up to next year’s presidential elections.
Reformists, the more liberal strand in Iran’s theocracy – headed by Ayatollah Mohammad Khatami, the former president – had won only 18 seats by last night, an ineffectual tally. However, it could not be seen as a test of the Khatami camp’s strength because hundreds of their candidates were barred from standing.
The unelected Guardian Council, set up by Ayatollah Khomeini to oversee the 1979 revolution, used its powers to disqualify a total of 1,700 candidates, mostly reformists, on grounds of insufficient loyalty to Islam. They included Khomeini’s grandson.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the successor to Khomeini, influenced the vote among much of Iran’s rural and uneducated population when he came out for Ahmadinejad last week, urging voters to elect anti-American candidates who “can pave the way for the current government”.
More than 65% of Iran’s 44m voters were said to have turned out. The polls stayed open for an extra five hours on Friday for late voters.
Iranian observers said that Ahmadinejad’s lead could be attributed in part to the placing in key positions of members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, of which he is a former member. Under his presidency the Revolutionary Guards have grown rich and powerful, not just from military projects but also from business ventures that range from dams to new towns and factories.
In Tehran, where results had yet to come in last night, the mood was of resignation, especially among the young who form 70% of Iran’s population.
Shoppers preferred to talk about their preparations for the Iranian new year, which starts next week. “Not really interested,” said a young woman with her hejab scarf pushed back on her head. “No vote I make will change anything here. I have a party tonight.”
Last updated 17/03/2008