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Campaign season starts with ... less than a bang

In Iran, many moderate candidates are banned from elections.

Associated Press
Published March 7, 2008


TEHRAN, Iran - Iran's eight-day parliamentary campaign season got off to a muted start Thursday, with no events and a paltry number of challengers running against hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's backers.

Ahmadinejad supporters were expected to make gains in the March 14 vote despite widespread economic discontent because Iran's constitutional watchdog has barred many reformist candidates from running.

The hardliner-dominated Guardian Council blocked 1,700 candidates, leaving 4,500 in the race for the 290-seat legislature, according to official figures. Ahmadinejad opponents say many of their candidates were blocked and only about 200 remain in the running nationwide.

The council can bar any candidate it labels as not loyal enough to the principles of the 1979 Islamic revolution and strict interpretations of Islamic rule.

Former President Mohammad Khatami, a reformist who served from 1997-2005, warned last month that there would be no serious competition for the vote unless the ban on moderates was reversed.

With central Tehran quiet ahead of an important religious holiday, streets were hung with billboards for the largest coalition of candidates - the United Front of Principlists, a hard-line grouping that includes many candidates close to Ahmadinejad.

The name Principlists refers to its supporters' promise to implement the principles of Islam. But the faction has also pledged to reduce poverty and fight inflation, a nod to concerns over Ahmadinejad's economic performance. According to official statistics, inflation stands at 17 percent.

A second hard-line list, the Inclusive Coalition of Principlists, has sought to distance itself from Ahmadinejad, calling for Parliament to be more independent of his administration.

The list says it has close ties with Tehran's popular mayor Mohmmad Baqer Qalibaf, touted as a potential challenger to Ahmadinejad in presidential elections next year.

The reformists have promised to reduce inflation and repair Iran's international image, which they say was heavily damaged by Ahmadinejad's anti-Western policy and rhetoric.

They are divided into three major coalitions, with candidates competing for seats in some districts.

The Coalition of Reformists includes former members of Khatami's Cabinet. The National Trust Party headed by former Parliament Speaker Mahdi Karrubi is running a separate list. A new list called the Coalition of Moderates is made up of backers of former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a powerful cleric seen as a top rival of Ahmadinejad.

The lists have not fully been completed across the country, and some candidates run independently without joining a coalition, making it difficult to assess the strengths of each faction. There is no open public opinion polling inside Iran.

The Guardian Council, which is dominated by hard-line clerics, barred thousands of reformists from running in the last elections, in 2004. Ahmadinejad's backers have some 140 seats in the current Parliament.

[Last modified March 7, 2008, 01:50:37]

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