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Khatami Urges Big Iran Vote Turnout

February 16, 2000

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) _ Calling this week’s parliamentary elections the ``most significant″ in 21 years, pro-reform President Mohammad Khatami on Wednesday urged Iranians to strengthen his hand by voting in large numbers.

On the last day of campaigning before Friday’s vote, top liberal candidates who support Khatami predicted they will win a majority in the 290-seat parliament, or Majlis, which is now dominated by conservative lawmakers backed by the hard-line clergy.

There are no opinion polls in Iran. But reformists are banking on ordinary Iranians’ frustration with the strict Islamic rules imposed by the clergy, who came to power in the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Iranians gave Khatami a landslide victory in 1997, drawn by his promise of reforms. In a radio and television speech, the president said the people can show their will again.

Khatami did not refer directly to his reform programs, but to his supporters the message was clear.

``By these votes you can give the most help to the president,″ he said. ``This election will be the 21st election since the revolution and, God willing, it would be the most significant one.″

In the streets of Tehran, dozens of young people interviewed said they supported pro-reform candidates.

``The most important issue for me is my freedom. How do I define freedom? I should be able to say what I want, do what I want,″ said Farangeez Haqiqat.

Her friend, Narges Teimouri, nodded. The cuffs of a pink sweater and the tapered end of blue jeans peeked out from under her black chador, which most Iranian women wear to cover themselves in obedience to Iranian laws.

In a basketball stadium in downtown Tehran, reformist candidates addressed a rally where about 5,000 supporters waved banners, whistled, sang patriotic songs and cheered every time the name of a jailed dissident was mentioned.

Men and women sat on opposite stands but clapped and shouted in unison. Many in the audience, including women, had wrapped campaign pamphlets around their foreheads like crowns.

The election results will prove ``that someone may rule as a jailer but he cannot lock the hearts of the people,″ said Alireza Nouri, a Tehran candidate whose brother, former Interior Minister Abdollah Nouri, is in jail for religious dissent.

Others who addressed the rally included Mohammadreza Khatami, the president’s brother, and Hadi Khamenei, the reformist brother of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a hard-liner.

During the last 2 1/2 years, Khatami has tried to ease the Islam-inspired social and political restrictions imposed by the clerics. The press has become freer, people have begun to question the clergy and women have often flouted the strict dress codes.

Reformist candidates also have tested the limits of what was permissible: One campaign leaflet showed a picture of candidate Mehdi Zad Bahtoui wearing a necktie, which is considered un-Islamic. Another showed candidate Hossein Farrokhi with an endorsement from movie actress Mahaya Petrossian, whose picture appeared on the reverse side. The use of an actress would have been unthinkable in previous election campaigns.

Friday’s elections will break ground in other ways. A record 424 women are candidates, and for the first time, only people with college degrees are being allowed to run.

Still, the reformists face an uphill task.

Even if they win a majority in the Majlis, they could be blocked. The Majlis has no legal weight without the hard-line controlled Guardian Council, which must endorse all legislation. Even then, Khamenei has the final word.

The hard-liners also have overpowering control of the judiciary, the electronic media and the armed forces.

Two senior hard-line clerics, Nouri Hamedani and Mohammed Fazel Lankarani, urged voters to support the ideals of Islam. People should elect candidates who ``do not seek to undermine or weaken Islamic teachings,″ Lankarani said.

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