Iran vote turnout will be telling
By CNN Senior International Correspondent Walter Rodgers
TEHRAN, Iran (CNN) -- The size of Friday's voter turnout in Iran may be at least as important as who is running. It will determine whether Iran's reformers have regained momentum or spent themselves.
Incumbent President Mohammad Khatami seems certain to win a second four-year term. Khatami, a reformer, is so confident that he didn't bother to debate any of the other nine candidates, many of them conservatives fielded to dilute his margin of victory.
Four years ago Khatami won by a stunning margin of nearly 70 percent. He corralled overwhelming numbers of voters under 30 and Iranian women who sought a loosening of the strict enforcement of Islamic law in Iranian society.
Few expect Khatami to muster the enthusiasm and energy to match that victory margin this time. The president and his supporters have repeatedly been frustrated by a parallel-track government in which the conservative clergy have skillfully blocked progressive reforms.
The conservatives fear that rapid reform might lead to an unraveling of their dominance of the judiciary, the army and other key institutions.
The president, who is also a cleric, is caught between Islamic leaders who want to slow the pace of reform and others, including progressive Muslim clerics, who believe reform, should be accelerated.
Throughout the campaign, Khatami pleaded with young voters aspiring to greater personal freedoms to be patient. At a news conference Tuesday, Khatami said, "The reality is we have to operate within the existing reality." He repeatedly pleads for "moderation, moderation, moderation."
One accomplishment Khatami can point to is that he has made "reform" part of the political vocabulary here. The other nine candidates mostly quibble about the degree and the pace of reform.
The selection afforded Iranian voters attests to the country's diverse, fledgling democracy. Among the candidates is a university chancellor who pledges to abolish tuition, an admiral, a former intelligence agency chief wanted by German officials for allegedly assassinating dissident Iranians abroad, and a nuclear physicist who claims to be the best man to manage the economy.
The economy is Khatami's Achilles heel. Official unemployment is 15 percent, but many suspect it to be much higher. With 75 percent of the population under the age of 30 and a million new job seekers entering the market each year, nearly everyone agrees that unemployment and painful poverty are the greatest threats to social and political stability. A spike in highly subsidized bread, cigarette and gasoline prices would be very destabilizing.
Khatami has pledged that job creation will be his highest priority in a second term. But Iran is a country in desperate need of comprehensive economic reform. Many economists see the country's vast oil reserves as a curse as well as a blessing, obstructing intelligent economic restructuring.
Economics aside, however, voters appear poised to give Khatami four more years and another chance. His cautious progressivism plays well in a conservative Islamic society. Nearly everyone gives him credit for creating a more civil atmosphere. One Tehran newspaper editor says, "Khatami nurtured the concept of democracy in the Iranians' minds. He created confidence and trust between the people and himself."
Another accomplishment in Khatami's tenure has been his skilful stewardship of Iranian diplomacy away from the shoals of extremism towards more peaceful coexistence with Iran's Persian Gulf neighbours. Once-hostile relations with Saudi Arabia are now openly friendly. Khatami has also conducted a skilful minuet that led to cordial ties with Russia to the north.
There remains little optimism for any immediate improvement of ties with the United States, which remain frozen. The latest Palestinian intifada against Israel precludes any U.S.-Iranian rapprochement, because Iran sees itself as at least a moral champion of fellow Muslims under siege.
Khatami warned, "As long as policymakers in the United States are under the influence of certain lobbies … it's clear they have to fundamentally change their way of thinking."
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