Saturday, June 11, 2005

swissinfo, Hardcore regime supporters split over Iran election

International news from swissinfo, the Swiss news platform: "June 11, 2005 1:05 PM

Hardcore regime supporters split over Iran election

By Paul Hughes

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Prayers and politics are inextricably entwined in the Islamic Republic of Iran and the last Friday Prayers session in Tehran before June 17 presidential elections was no exception.

Banners draped inside the Tehran University prayer hall reminded the 6,000 worshippers it was their duty to send a defiant message to Iran's enemies by voting.

"Each vote means death to America," said hardline cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, invoking the chant that has reverberated around prayer meetings since the 1979 Islamic revolution toppled the U.S.-backed Shah.

Those at prayers, the vast majority of them over 40, represent the unshakable hardcore supporters of the system of clerical rule introduced after the revolution.

Analysts say they number between 10 and 25 percent of Iran's 67 million population and deem them a potent electoral force in a vote where turnout is expected to be about 50 percent.

But an electoral field of eight, including two clerics and four former members of Iran's hardline Revolutionary Guards, has split the hardcore vote and boosted the chances of more moderate candidates like former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

"The variety of candidates means the vote will be split," said Mohammad Reza Kuchakzadeh, 50, as rival groups flooded out of prayers chanting the names of their favorites and tossing campaign leaflets into the air.

Kuchakzadeh, who works in a car parts factory, said he would vote for former state broadcasting chief Ali Larijani, 48, who is currently fourth in opinion polls well behind front-runner Rafsanjani, 70, the president from 1989 to 1997.

FRESH FACE

"We need a fresh face with new ideas and energy and flexibility. I see such characteristics in Larijani," he said.

But he doubted Larijani could win the vote to replace outgoing reformist cleric Mohammad Khatami. "I think the general atmosphere favors Rafsanjani," he said.

Nearby an elderly woman pointed eagerly at a picture of former Tehran Mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a staunch hard-liner who has made little impression in polls.

"Rafsanjani's too old, he's not capable," she exclaimed.

Reza Heydari, 55, said he would vote for "someone who can rescue our country from poverty and that is Ahmadinejad."

Like others interviewed, Heydari said the most pressing problems facing Iran were economic and dismissed the need for greater political and social freedoms which more liberal candidates have promised.

"Iran is already free. What we need is someone who can lower inflation, cut unemployment and improve welfare," he said.

Hardline commentator Hossein Shariatmadari said last week the four traditional conservative candidates must agree on a single nominee to have any hope of overhauling Rafsanjani.

He suggested locking Larijani, Ahmadinejad, ex-Revolutionary guards chief Mohsen Rezaie and ex-police chief Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf in a mosque for 48 hours to settle their differences.

Qalibaf, 43, whose slick campaign advertisements feature him in pilot's uniform next to a passenger jet and highlight his piercing blue eyes, is second behind Rafsanjani in the polls.

But despite clear anti-Rafsanjani hints dropped by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in speeches urging voters to elect a young, energetic president, some said Iran should turn to the wily pragmatist again.

"The bazaar has decided to back Larijani," said Mohammad Tajik, 60, who owns a shop in the Tehran bazaar. "But I will vote for Rafsanjani. He has the experience to lead the country."

(Additional reporting by Amir Paivar)"