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World - Middle East

Iranians go to polls to vote in local elections

February 26, 1999
Web posted at: 5:25 a.m. EST (1025 GMT)

In this story:

'A trial election for the future'

A dazzling range of choice


TEHRAN, Iran (Reuters) - Iranians voted on Friday in the country's first local elections, part of ambitious political reforms fostered by President Mohammad Khatami to challenge the centralised grip of the conservative clerical establishment.

Almost 300,000 candidates, from clean-shaven aristocrats in ties to bearded Islamic revolutionaries and Western-trained yuppies, are vying for 197,000 seats on village, town and city councils in what officials have billed as Iran's biggest experiment in grassroots democracy and decentralization.

"The elections are the greatest symbol of participation and political reform," President Khatami, a populist Shiite Muslim cleric elected 21 months ago, said as he cast his votes in a northern Tehran mosque.

"They are to ensure people know their rights in shaping their destiny. It is also a giant step towards decentralization, which is a goal of the new government."

Officials said 39 million Iranians, aged 15 years and up, were eligible to vote, at more than 52,000 polling stations.

In heavily politicized Tehran, some 4,200 candidates are competing for 15 seats. Despite the daunting scale, voters at a number of polling places around the capital said they knew in advance exactly how they would cast their ballots.

'A trial election for the future'

Most clutched lists of candidates from among the leading slates advertising in newspapers. Others carried hand-written notes to help them find their favorites among the huge computer print-outs listing the hopefuls and their required code numbers.

"I am not voting for individuals but for a line of thought," said Mohammad Mehdi Bahrani as he prepared his ballot.

"This is a trial election for the future. Most people don't know who the candidates are. Next time we will have true local polls," added Bahrani, an engineer.

Turnout so far was light but poll watchers said they expected a larger crowd later in the day, after Friday prayers and traditional meals with the extended family. "The ones who are really keen come in the morning," said one election official.

Voting got under way at 8 a.m. (0430 GMT) and was scheduled to run for eight hours. However, past practice suggests officials would extend the voting into the night. Election monitors have promised final results within 48 hours.

The run-up to Friday's vote has been marred by tensions and scattered violence, as some moderate candidates or their offices came under attack. A bitter dispute over the qualifications of pro-Khatami candidates also cast a shadow over the polls, but intervention by the president apparently resolved the quarrel.

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, voting in Tehran just minutes after the polls opened, asked the population to maintain law and order during the vote.

"Try to keep order and security so that there will not be any negative side effects," said Khamenei, whose powers dwarf those of the elected president. "Try to be polite, use good language and avoid scuffles as befits a revolutionary Iranian Muslim."

A dazzling range of choice

The only discordant note witnessed on a tour of city polling places surrounded the candidacy of Sadegh Samii, who caused something of a sensation by appearing in campaign posters wearing a tie, a reviled symbol of the hated West.

A group of well-dressed women, intent on casting a protest vote for Samii, groused they were unable to find him or his code number on the lists.

Despite an expensive advertising campaign, Samii's supporters, attracted to his aristocratic pedigree and openly Western style, were likely to have a hard time voting for their favorite. The well-known businessman and publisher was listed under his full surname, Rahmat-Samii.

Amid a dazzling range of choice, from dissident Islamic intellectuals to orthodox revolutionaries and closet monarchists, the races largely boil down to "national" contests in Tehran and "local" battles elsewhere.

Village and town contests are likely to turn on local demands for improved municipal services, from sewerage systems to telephone connections and natural gas lines.

In contrast, the Tehran polls pit a prominent reformist coalition backing President Khatami against a well-financed conservative ticket tied to the traditional clerics and the old-line bazaar merchants. Thousands of independents round out the city's candidates.

Khatami and his allies hope the vote will end the grip of powerful conservative and provide the building blocks for a civil society.

Copyright 1999 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.

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