Campaigning kicks off for presidential election

TEHRAN (AFP) — Campaigning for next month’s presidential election officially got under way in Iran on Wednesday after hardliners agreed to let two reformists into a race dominated by hardliners and conservatives.
The field of eight men will be battling to succeed reformist President Mohammad Khatami, near the end of his second and final term, as international tensions mount over Iran’s nuclear programme.

But Mostafa Moin, the main reformist candidate given last-minute approval to stand by the Guardians Council — a hardline-controlled political watchdog — said he may pull out of the race rather than be seen as a puppet of the regime.

The Guardians Council, which draws up the candidate list, have allowed Moin and another reformer to stand amid threats of a mass boycott of the polls and warnings the 26-year-old Islamic regime was facing a crisis of legitimacy.

Still seen as the front-runner for the June 17 vote is powerful ex-president and pragmatic conservative Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is seeking a comeback as the 26-year-old regime’s number-two and pledging to save the country from “extremists.”

Rafsanjani, a 70-year-old cleric, is seen as a capable deal-maker who favours improved ties with the West and economic liberalisation — something that may lure voters tired of Iran’s international isolation and high unemployment.

The two reformists approved are Moin, who is representing Iran’s main leftist party — the Islamic Iran Participation Front (IIPF) — and Mohsen Mehr-Alizadeh, an independent candidate who is currently a vice president in Khatami’s Cabinet.

The other five candidates are hardliners Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, Ali Larijani, Mahmud Ahmadi Nejad and Mohsen Rezai — all veterans of the hardline Revolutionary Guards — plus the moderate former parliament speaker Mehdi Karoubi.

Qalibaf, a populist former national police chief, has been tipped by informal opinion polls — to be treated with caution — as running a distant second behind Rafsanjani.

Moin said he was “still examining the question” on whether he would stand, and IIPF officials said they were still trying to gauge public opinion.

The fears are that if Moin manages to pull off a win, he would simply be a lame-duck president like Khatami, and incapable of acting on his mandate due to opposition from more powerful hardliners.

“Opinions are split. Some people are demanding that he boycott the elections, some people want him to stand and others want him to set certain conditions,” IIPF official Issa Saharkhiz told AFP.

A key issue in the election will be voter turnout — a figure seen as an indication of the level of support for the regime. With many voters in frustrated by the pace of reform and with hardliners still holding onto most institutions — therefore limiting the power of a future president — the regime may still have a tough time getting people out to vote.

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Tuesday that “people’s participation in the elections will make the enemies disappointed.”

The initial decision by the Guardians Council to disqualify reformists had threatened to provoke a serious political crisis.

Iran’s arch-enemy the United States has also shrugged off the decision to allow reformists to run, saying the poll remained fundamentally undemocratic.

“It really doesn’t change our essential view that this is a process that has been shaped and distorted by the decisions of some unelected leaders,” said State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher.

This view is shared by Nobel laureate and human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi, who says she will not be voting in any Iranian election where the candidates are subject to vetting.

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