Iranians deal blow to Ahmadinejad

Posted in Iran | 19-Dec-06 | Source: International Herald Tribune

Iranians queue up with their ID cards to vote at a polling station in Tehran on December 15.

TEHRAN: Iranian reformers and moderate conservatives asserted Monday that they had struck a blow against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by winning most of the seats in local elections and exposing public discontent with the president's hard-line political stances and inefficient administration.

The voting for local councils represented a partial comeback for reformists, who favor closer ties with the West and a loosening of social and political restrictions under the Islamic government. In past years, hard-liners drove reformers out of the council, Parliament and finally the presidency, leaving the once popular movement demoralized.

But the victory in Friday's elections was for moderate conservatives, supporters of the cleric-led power structure who are angry at Ahmadinejad, saying he has needlessly provoked the West with his harsh rhetoric and has failed to address the faltering economy.

The election does not directly effect Ahmadinejad's administration and is not expected to bring immediate policy changes. It selected local councils that handle community matters in cities and town across the country.

But it represented the first time the public has weighed in on Ahmadinejad's stormy presidency since he took office in June 2005. The results could pressure Ahmadinejad to change at least his tone and focus more on high unemployment and economic problems at home.

Ahmadinejad has escalated Iran's nuclear dispute with the United States, pushing ahead with uranium enrichment despite UN demands that Iran suspend the process. As a result, Europe has come to support Washington's calls for sanctions to stop a program they fear aims to develop nuclear weapons, a claim Iran denies.

At the same time, Ahmadinejad has angered Europe and the United States by proclaiming that Israel should be "wiped off the map" and hosting a conference that was meant to cast doubt on whether the Nazi Holocaust took place.

"Ahmadinejad's list has suffered a decisive defeat nationwide," said the Islamic Iran Participation Front, the largest reformist party. "It is a big no to the government's authoritarian and inefficient methods."

In councils of some major cities — such as Shiraz and Bandar Abbas in the south — not one pro-Ahmadinejad candidate won a seat, according to partial results released by the Interior Ministry.

In Tehran, the capital, candidates who support Mayor Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf, a moderate conservative, were on track to win 7 of the 15 council seats. Reformists appeared to win four and Ahmadinejad's allies had three, the partial results showed. The last seat would probably go to an independent. Final results were expected Tuesday.

Anti-Ahmadinejad sentiment was visible in a parallel election held to select members of the Assembly of Experts, a body of 86 senior clerics that monitors the supreme leader and chooses his successor. Several pro-reform clerics were barred from running, but conservative opponents of the president appeared to outperform his supporters.

A former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who lost to Ahmadinejad in the 2005 runoff, won the most votes of any Tehran candidate to win re-election to the assembly. Also re- elected was Hassan Rowhani, Iran's former top nuclear negotiator whom Ahmadinejad accused of making too many concessions to the Europeans.

By contrast, Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi — regarded as the president's hard-line spiritual mentor — won an assembly seat with a low number of votes. One Yazdi ally was defeated by a more moderate conservative cleric in the city of Qom.

Turnout in the local council vote was more than 60 percent — substantially higher than the 50 percent in the last one, held in 2002.

The moderate conservative camp — typified by Qalibaf, the mayor, and his supporters — emerged as a strong political force, positioned between pro-Ahmadinejad hard-liners and the reformists. In their campaign, the moderate conservatives stressed promises to improve living standards, modernize the economy and promote "competency" in administration.

Qalibaf and his supporters do not back moving closer to the United States and they oppose giving up uranium enrichment, a position shared by almost all camps in Iran, where the nuclear program is a source of national pride.

But they oppose extreme stances that fuel tensions with the outside world and they have accused Ahmadinejad of provoking the West.

The moderates also tolerate the less restrictive social rules on mixing of sexes and women's dress, while many hard-liners want to re-impose tougher restrictions.

One moderate headed to victory in the council, a former Tehran police chief, Morteza Talaei, was popular among reformers because his officers did not crack down on the few anti-government protests that have occurred at universities during Ahmadinejad's presidency.

Still, the moderate conservatives criticize the reformers, accusing them of seeking to end the clerical rule created after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

A political analyst, Mostafa Mirzaeian, said Iran's political lineup was moving toward "a coalition between reformers and moderate conservatives, at the expense of hard-line extremists who support Ahmadinejad."

The moderates' showing raised hopes for the reformers, especially since many of their candidates were barred from running by Parliament committees that have the power to vet those running.

Among the apparent victors in Tehran was Massoumeh Iftikhar, who served as Iran's first female vice president during the term of Mohammad Khatami, the pro-reform president.

Khatami was elected in 1997 and reformers gained control of Parliament soon after. But in recent years, hard- liners succeeded in regaining the legislature by using cleric-run bodies to bar top reformists from running.