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In Iran's Election, Not All Candidates Are Welcome

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Iran holds parliamentary elections on Friday, the first since the disputed, and many believe fraudulent, presidential election in 2009.

But unlike that presidential poll, candidates seeking to take on the country's conservative rulers will not be taking part Friday; they are mostly under house arrest or have been in prison for years now.

The focus will be on which conservatives end up on top and how many votes are cast.

Iran's leaders desperately want to avoid a repeat of the presidential election three year as ago that plunged the country into turmoil. Millions came into the streets to protest the announcement that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won a second term.

The protesters believed the opposition leader, Mir Hossein Mousavi, who is now under house arrest, was the actual winner.

Riot police and street thugs attacked the demonstrators, and gradually, the police were able to suppress what turned out to be the greatest internal challenge to Iran's Islamic government in 30 years.

This presents Iran's leadership with a problem, says Nader Hashemi, an Iran analyst at the University of Denver.

"Elections in Iran have always been used as a way of sending a message to the outside world that we have internal popular support," he says.

That was not the message in 2009, and it appears Iran's leaders are uneasy about it this time around as well.

Voter Turnout Closely Watched

"With no significant competition from the reformist camp, the campaign itself has revealed deep concern among the establishment about voter turnout, as well as the intense competition that is now going on among the various conservative forces," says Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert who teaches at the University of Hawaii.

Iran's leaders, including Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader himself, have declared they expect a 60 percent turnout. The ayatollah has also issued a religious order — a fatwa — that those who are eligible must vote. It's not clear whether that means they will be forced to vote.

In any case, there's already widespread skepticism that the turnout results will be accurately reported.

The real competition in this election is among the so-called principalists — the various conservative forces that have fought so fiercely to control Iran's government.

In that context, some see this election as fundamentally a fight between supporters of President Ahmadinejad and loyalists of the Supreme Leader.

"There is an attempt to rally people around the Ahmadinejad faction," says Hashemi, the analyst at the University of Denver. "And one of the things that the Ahmadinejad faction has been doing is to try and play off of the peoples' general antipathy toward clerical rule."

President's Term Expires Next Year

Ahmadinejad's two presidential terms end next year, so gaining support in the new parliament is one way he could extend his power and influence beyond his time in office.

Farhi sees the battle of the principalists this time around as far more complex than a contest between the Ayatollah and the president.

"I think this is an election in which various wings of principalism — traditional, pragmatic and hard line — are trying to position themselves," Farhi says. "I seriously doubt any of them will come out of this election stronger, since the process has so far led to even more splintering of the faction."

Hashemi stresses that it is important to note the international context in which this election is taking place.

"The question of the nuclear program, the question of a possible foreign military strike, the question of Iran's collapsing economy as a result of the nuclear program and Western sanctions has sort of really cast a spell of, I think, despair and disillusionment over Iranian society generally," he says.

Finally, there is the utter complexity of the election. The Guardian Council, a body of 12 mostly conservative clerics, has approved more than 3,400 candidates to run for the parliament's 290 seats. The council disqualified nearly 2,000 people.

Needless to say it is not easy to keep track of who the candidates are and what they stand for.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit


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