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Iran's dual governing system breeds voter apathy

TEHRAN, Iran—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.

A nationwide survey distributed Saturday by the official news agency IRNA gave Rafsanjani 27.1 percent backing, with Moin in second place with 18.9 percent. IRNA, the Islamic Republic News Agency is controlled by the Khatami government.

"Alas, we have drifted a long way from the vision of the revolutionaries," lamented Iran Daily columnist M. P. Zamani in Thursday's edition. "The widening gap between the rich and poor, the worrying levels of unemployment and the large numbers who have fallen below the poverty line are a barometer of what the political elite have done in the past."

But pro-Rafsanjani journalist Mohammad Atrianfar said he believes it's less a case of voter apathy and more of evolving voter sophistication affecting the lead-up to the elections.

Choosing a president is no longer simply a patriotic duty in which the victor's commitment to Iranians isn't questioned, he said.

Instead, it's about comparison-shopping. Voters want to know what that president will do for them, said Atrianfar, director of the daily newspaper Shargh, or "East," editorial board.

The possibility of a low voter turnout couldn't come at a worse time for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other un-elected rulers of the Islamic Republic. They are keenly aware that the election will be closely watched not only by Iranians, but also by the international community to measure the popularity of the 26-year-old Islamic system.

A successful election is paramount, analysts say, given mounting pressure from the West for Iran to curtail its nuclear program, reports of U.S. efforts to destabilize the regime, including recent reports of support for Iranian expatriate opposition groups, and a flagging economy that's affected Iranians ages 30 and younger, who account for more than three of every five people here.

Iran's leaders appear to be less interested in who wins than in how many people cast votes that validate their way of running the country. That means keeping the turnout above the 51 percent in last year's parliamentary election, the poorest major election showing since the inception of the Islamic Republic in 1979. Saturday's IRNA poll predicted a turnout of 54.8 percent.

Banners and posters that feature Khamenei's picture warn: "Participation of the people in the election is the people's duty." He and other clerics during recent Friday prayers have also urged voters to cast ballots to strike at Iran's enemies, a thinly veiled reference to the United States.

In a further bid to rekindle Iranian patriotism and get out the vote, the government recently organized the most lavish ceremony in years to commemorate the death of Islamic Republic founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Presidential candidates from across the political spectrum have laid claim to his legacy, extolling his dream of an Islamic democracy for all Iranians.

Outside Khomeini's tomb where the annual ceremony was held, some of the late ayatollah's fervent admirers remained unconvinced.

"Khomeini left and everything left with him," complained Akbar Movahedi, 27, an unemployed laborer who lives in Shiite Muslim Iran's holiest city, Qom. "There's no point in voting, except getting a stamp in your identification card," a prerequisite in this country for getting a government job.

Moin supporter and veteran Iranian sociologist Hamid Reza Jalaipour fields such statements all the time at campaign rallies, where he speaks on his candidate's behalf.

"The mood is definitely not like it was when Khatami was elected," he said.

"At this stage, the best we can hope for is to keep the hands of the reformers in the democratic part of our government," he added, so that political, social and economic reforms Khatami started can be continued.

Nevertheless, even Moin and his supporters resist any radical overhaul of the two-pronged system as a means to regain voters' trust. As disillusioned as people are, there's no benefit to deposing the Islamic rulers, as Iranians ousted the U.S.-backed Shah in 1979, Jalaipour said.

He added: "The goal should be democracy, not revolution."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): IRAN-ELECTIONS

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050609 IRAN ELECTIONS

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