DEMOCRACY, FREEDOM AND HUMAN RIGHTS ARE THE ISSUES, NOT ELECTIONS

By Safa Haeri, IPS Editor

PARIS, 8 Dec. (IPS) As the seventh legislative elections of the Islamic Republic approach, it appears that the leaders of the reformist bloc express certainty that the conservative-controlled monitoring mechanisms would reject most of the reformist candidates and this despite the majority of the reformist bloc shows more interest in taking an active part in the elections, scheduled for next February.

The announcement by the Office for the Consolidation of Unity (OCU), Iranian students largest organisation calling for changes in the present system that it would not support the reformists and has withdrawn from the front that backs the lamed President Mohammad Khatami in the next Majles elections, most political analysts express "fears" to see the reformists suffering a "crushing" defeat, similar the one they suffered in the past cities and villages councils last February.

The OCU played and instrumental role in the victory of Hojjatoleslam Khatami in the May 1997 election and his re-election four years later, as well in the victory of the reformists in the sixth Majles, but it decided to separate itself from the reformist wing of the clerical-led leadership after Mr. Khatami got closer to the conservatives, suffering an abysmal fall in the eyes of the majority of the young voters.

The divorce between the great majorities of students with both Mr. Khatami and the official reformists reached the point of non return after the President failed to show up at the ceremonies marking the national Student Day, ceremonies that were held inside closed-doors auditoriums in universities because of the authorities refusing to grant them permission to hold open meetings.

Nevertheless, the OCU has so far avoided calling upon citizens and students in particular to boycott the elections, while it is confident that the students, along with many more millions of citizens, will choose not to cast their ballots.

The leaders of the movement issued a call to hold a referendum on the future of the Islamic republic, and also Iran political organizations which in recent years have joined the ranks of the opposition (such as the Iran Democratic Front), are starting to voice their support of the boycott.

Dr. Mohammad Reza Khatami, the younger brother of the President who is the leader of the Islamic Iran Participation Front (IIPF) and vice-Speaker of the Majles, said that even though the reformists had had enough of the conservatives acts of repression, five thousand IIPF activists in 250 local offices across the country would put the difficult task of encouraging the citizens to come to the polls by the masses at the top of their concerns in the months left before the elections.

In an interview granted to the influential German news weekly "Der Spiegel", the younger Khatami said there is no stopping the momentum of the reforms, but the reformists "like a wise cat caught in a dead end" must exercise subtle manipulations in order to avoid falling into the "lap of the anarchists on the one hand, and not to become pawns in the hands of the tyrants on the other".

He asserted that most of the reformist-bloc candidates would not be able to run for the elections, as the leader-controlled Council of Guardians, the body that vets all candidates to all elections in the Islamic Republic, would screen them out.

"We have no intention to hide the fact that we, reformists, have miserably failed our supporters. We realise that the people and the millions of younger Iranians in particular are not happy with the results of our activities during the past seven years, and we also know that as a result of the gloomy atmosphere that has taken over millions of citizens, thousands of legitimate voters will choose not to exercise their franchise and will, in fact, vote with their feet", the Baztab news website that belongs to Mr. Mohsen Reza’i, the former Commander of the Revolutionary Guards and present Secretary to the conservatives-controlled Expediency Council quoted Mr. Khatami as having admitted.

For his part, Mr. Sa’id Hajjarian, considered as "the architect" of Mr. Khatami’s landslide victory in the 1997 elections warned the conservatives that their anticipated landslide victory in the coming elections would prove to be a most severe blow to the international image of the Islamic republic.

In an interview with the independent Iranian students news agency ISNA, Mr. Hajjarian, confined to a wheel chair and having difficulties speaking as a result of an assassination attempt on his life four years ago, explained that clearly, the world is aware that the elections in Iran are held under the watching eye of the conservative establishments, and thus, "should the conservatives win the elections, not a single person in the world will be able to accept the results as legitimate; therefore, any laws passed the next Majles (under conservative control) will not be acknowledged by any international bodies. As a result, the international criticism of the Islamic Republic will escalate and the Iranian relations with European countries will continue to deteriorate".

Hajjarian categorically rejected the conservative’s claim that voting is a religious and social duty that the citizens must fulfil, and said that it is "a right, not a duty".

"It is entirely up to the citizens to choose whether to exercise this right or not. The citizens must not be forced or intimidated", he observed.

Hajjarian compared the parliamentary elections to a funeral people choose to take part in and said that the body is left lying on the ground and nobody wants to bury it. He warned that if the people lose their faith in the reformists too, Iranian society might succumb to anarchy.

Hajjarian estimated that most residents of Tehran, Esfahan, Tabriz and other major cities will boycott the elections but fifty percent of the population in rural areas may come to the polls after all.

"However, there is no doubt that the outcome of the elections will be determined in the big cities, just as the uprisings in Tehran, Esfahan and Tabriz sealed the fate of the Shah’s rule during the revolution", he added.

Iran Democratic Front (IDF), led by Mr. Heshmatollah Tabarzadi, a former founder of the OCU who has been held in solitary confinement at Evin prison for the past five months, also supported the call for boycott of the elections.

"In order to convey to the ruling tyrants the clear message that the people want to see the existing regime in the garbage can of history, is necessary for the Iranian people to boycott the elections", IDF said in a recent statement on 21 November.

According to Mr. Tabarzadi, one of the first dissidents calling for national referendum aimed at changing the regime, not only President Khatami and the reformist bloc have failed to uphold their promised reforms, but "any citizen who expresses criticism of the regime is held in solitary confinement for prolonged periods of time and is denied fundamental rights, and even his family suffers from constant harassment".

Chairman of the students association at Tehran’s Amir Kabir University, Mehdi Habibi, who was recently released from prison, also expressed his confidence that the students would not take part in the elections and said that it’s not the fixed game of the elections that the people care about.

"What people are concerned with is the problems of freedom, fundamental rights and democracy", he said, adding that after the turbulent times the students movement has seen these past several years, the movement has held in-depth discussions and has come to the unequivocal conclusion that it has to distance itself from the game the two regime factions are playing.

"This is why the movement does not present candidates and does not participate in the elections in any way whatsoever", Mr. Habibi told the independent Iranian Labour news agency ILNA two weeks ago.

In his opinion, changing the regime and shifting the reigns of power from the reformists to the conservatives or the Imam’s followers and the like is not a solution for the difficult problems that plague the country.

"Only a referendum can tip the scales. A referendum is the only way we can understand whether the Iranian people want this regime to carry on or not", he added, reiterating that the Constitution must be amended.

As long as the fundamental obstacles stipulated by the constitution exist, Mr. Habibi told ILNA, "no fundamental problem would be solved"

He severely criticised the reformists, observing that to defend themselves, the reformists make a weak claim by saying that if they were not able to realise the people’s will, at least they’ve done no harm. "This claim is quite ridiculous. The Iranian people are smart enough to understand that the Majles hasn’t passed a single substantial bill", he pointed out.

Therefore, the people have come to the conclusion that since the Council of Guardians and the Expediency Council dictate the laws anyhow, there is no point in having the Majles around. Habibi, whose case in Tehran’s revolutionary court is still pending, said that students, like millions of other citizens in this country, will not take part in the elections.

"Even if the reformists held all 290 seats of the Majlis, none of the bills the majority of the people want to see approved would be passed since the Council of Guardians will never ratify the bills", another reformist Member of the Majles (MM) observed, referring to the fact that all laws passed by the Majles must be approved by the Guardians for their strict conformity with Islamic Canons.

"Common sense and logic dictate that we stay out of this game. Our call for a referendum is not only the significant issues, but the continued existence of the Islamic republic as well that must be put to question", he concluded.

The talkback columns in Tehran’s reformist newspapers are full of calls to boycott the elections. The readers say that there is no justification to bring the people to the polls once again, since the reformists, both in the parliament and in the government, have been a severe disappointment to the people and have even betrayed the people’s trust.

Reformist MM and former leader of the OCU, Hojjatoleslam Ali Akbar Mousavi-Kho’einiha has gone even further in his criticism of the forthcoming parliament elections and publicly said that the biggest problem the Islamic Republic faces is the unlimited power held by the leader (Ayatollah Ali Khameneh'i).

"Since the major branches of the regime operates under the control of a the single person of the Leader of the regime, that person stands in the way of any fundamental development and meaningful change", he noted, adding: "when the very person who stands at the pinnacle of the regime’s power opposes real change, what is the point in holding parliament elections?"

His view was confirmed by dissident Grand Ayatollah Hoseynali Montazeri, Iran’s and Shi’a Muslims senior religious authority, telling recently the Washington Post that there is no justification that a single person decides how 70 million citizens need to run their lives. "In today’s world, there is no longer room for tyrannical rule. Eventually, autocracy is bound to crumble and leave the arena "sooner or later".

In an interview granted to the editor-in-chief of the "Washington Post" who recently visited the city of Qom, considered as the "cradle of Shi’a militantism", Ayatollah Montazeri reiterated his criticism over the way the regime is run, as he has been doing for the past six years, unleashing fierce criticism at the way Ayatollah Khameneh'i rules the country.

Mr. Montazeri was placed under house arrest six years ago on orders of Mr. Khameneh'i, not tolerating the criticism had had made openly about the lavish life-style of the leader and the way he conducts the nation’s affairs, both on domestic and international fronts.

In the interview, Montazeri repeatedly stressed that the Islamic rule has forsaken the path of right and forgotten all promises made to the people during the revolution. He said that any person who expresses criticism finds himself behind bars.

"Those who hold the reigns of power even claim that there is not a single political prisoner in Iran! I ask the following, then: consider, among others, Abbas Abdi, Dr. Hashem Aqajari, Hojjatoleslam Hasan Yusefi Eshkevari. Are they criminals or murderers who need to be held in prison lastingly? The Constitution states that trials on political grounds should be transparent, held in the presence of jury while maintaining the rights of the defendants. Is this unequivocal directive being carried out in practice?", he observed.

A critic of the President’s lack of determination in face of the conservatives, Ayatollah Montazeri said the people are so exhausted and desperate that they do not want to bother themselves at all and called indirectly upon the Iranian people to stand up for their "legitimate rights".

Nevertheless, he expressed his hope that the Iranian people can overcome their despair and realise their civil, social and religious duty. He also said that we still hope that the leaders of the regime will be wise enough to come to their senses "before it is too late".

It should be noted that although the Iranian Labour News Agency (ILNA) published the complete interview, all Iranian newspapers, including those who support the reforms, preferred to ignore the interview, presumably out of fear of being closed down.

In order to dissuade people, hard liners have instructed the pressure groups they control to disrupt systematically rallies, conferences and meetings organised by the reformers, accusing them of playing in the hands of enemies of Islam and the Islamic revolution.

In a a speech given to the demonstrators in Qom, Hojjatoleslam Ahmad Panahian strongly condemned the reformists and said that those who lay claim to the throne of reforms in Iran are "nothing but pathetic individuals who will stop at nothing to get their names mentioned in the Radio Israel news edition in Persian".

As a result, the Islamic Iran Participation Front, the nation’s largest political organisation was forced to call off its election rallies.

Former Vice-President Ata’ollah Mohajerani cancelled his visit to Qom out of fear of fuelling the passions among the hardliners. The office of Naser Shirzad, the reformist deputy from the the central city of Esfahan had been ransacked and Mr. Mohsen Mirdamadi, the Chairman of the National Security and Foreign Affairs Committee at the Majles was beaten and injured in Yazd, the hometown of President Khatami.

Meanwhile, the conservative faction continues to apply significant efforts toward preparing for the elections. According to a reliable source who granted an interview to Tehran’s Baztab website, the loyalists of the revolution and the followers of Imam Khomeini are actively engaged in the formation of a broad coalition with the intention of winning most of the seats in the parliament. He says that the coalition will include 18 factions, all of which oppose Khatami’s government. ENDS IRAN UPDATE 81203