Campaign starts for crucial Iran elections

A woman in Teheran plastering her car with posters supporting Mr Mohammed Wakili, a candidate in the upcoming elections. Iran goes to the polls next week.
A woman in Teheran plastering her car with posters supporting Mr Mohammed Wakili, a candidate in the upcoming elections. Iran goes to the polls next week.PHOTO: REUTERS

Reformists, conservatives to face off in polls that could shape future of Islamic republic

TEHERAN • Iranians got the first taste this week of the campaign for the upcoming elections, pitting reformists and moderates against conservatives in elections that could shape the country's future over the next decade.

Voters will take part in two ballots - one to elect MPs, and another to pick the Assembly of Experts, a powerful committee of 88 clerics who supervise the work of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's ultimate authority.

But the run-up to voting day on Friday next week has been dominated by controversy over who will be allowed to contest the elections, instead of a debate about the policies that candidates support.

All those seeking public office in Iran are vetted for their loyalty to the Islamic republic, and almost half of the applicants seeking to become lawmakers were excluded. In the initial round of vetting, reformists suffered the heaviest blow, with thousands of candidates rejected.

That decision taken by the Guardian Council - a constitutional watchdog with veto powers over who can stand - was criticised by Dr Hassan Rouhani, Iran's moderate President, whose nuclear deal with world powers stands to open Iran up to the West.

After he and government ministers intervened, an extra 1,500 candidates were allowed to run. But grievances remain, particularly because of the exclusion of many prominent reformists.

A pro-Rouhani coalition of reformists and moderates is playing up the nuclear pact's long-term economic potential, and is seeking to swing the balance of power in Parliament away from conservatives.

Should the bloc - the Alliance of Reformists and Government Supporters - succeed, Dr Rouhani may be able to pass legislation that delivers at least modest political changes and social reforms.

Referring to the group's campaign slogan "Second Step", Dr Mohammad Reza Aref, its No. 1 candidate, said the first step was Dr Rouhani's election victory in 2013.

"That approach won and we want to continue that approach now in these elections," said Dr Aref, whose decision to stand aside three years ago helped Dr Rouhani achieve a landslide victory.

In a sign of the regime's tight control over the polls, applications and vetting procedures took seven weeks and official campaigning for Parliament will last just seven days.

Mr Ruhollah Salahshoori - a canvasser at the Teheran event on Thursday where candidates from the Aref-Rouhani slate appeared - said the elections "must bring about a fundamental change".

"I'd like us to make a step forward, the same way our government and foreign minister did," the 36-year-old engineer said, referring to the historic nuclear deal that was implemented last month.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 20, 2016, with the headline 'Campaign starts for crucial Iran elections'. Print Edition | Subscribe