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Iran Elections Could Determine Pace of Reform

March 8, 1996

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) _ Parliamentary elections today could help determine how far Iran moves toward the West and how fast it reforms its stagnant economy.

President Hashemi Rafsanjani, a moderate who favors limited economic and social reforms, was among the early morning voters. He cast his ballot at a hall where the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of Iran’s Islamic revolution, used to greet visitors.

Steady streams of voters arrived throughout the day at the mosques and schools where voting was held.

``We are voting because we want to show we support the values of the Islamic revolution,″ said Morteza Fayazi, a university student who had just cast his ballot in a working-class district of south Tehran.

But based on previous national elections, turnout was expected to be around 50 percent or less, a sign of political apathy and the limited choices available.

Of the 2,946 candidates running for 270 seats in the Majlis, or parliament, all support fundamentalist Islamic rule and many remain hostile to the West.

Groups opposed to clerical rule are banned from participating, and another 2,000 would-be candidates were rejected by a government council of clerics that screened contenders for commitment to Islamic doctrine.

``With the political pressure from the United States and Israel, the future Majlis must be vigilant,″ Rafsanjani said.

Rafsanjani, who leads the country’s so-called pragmatists _ those willing to curb the country’s revolutionary zeal enough to attract foreign investors and reform the state-run economy _ is not on the ballot. But his political allies need to do well if he’s to have any chance of pursuing economic and social reforms.

His supporters swept the last parliamentary elections in 1992, and many analysts predicted that he would no longer face stiff resistance from hard-line rivals.

However, the legislature has considerable power, and has on numerous occasions stymied or watered down his reform efforts.

Critics also say that Rafsanjani’s government has yet to devise a coherent economic policy.

Iran is among the world’s leading oil producers, yet the stagnant economy remains plagued by unemployment, a lack of foreign investment and chronic inflation that has reduced the value of the Iranian rial to 3,000 to the U.S. dollar.

Thursday night, Hamed Rahmani, a member of the main exiled Iranian opposition group, was shot and killed while driving to his office in the Iraqi capital.

Farid Soleimani, a spokesman for the Mujahedeen Khalq group, blamed the attack on the Iranian government and said it was the sixth assassination of a Mujahedeen member in Baghdad since May.

Shiite Muslim clergymen have ruled Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution, but in recent years there’s been a contest within Iran between the moderates and hard-liners.

There are no Western-style political parties in Iran, though there are some 10 informal factions competing in the election, according to the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Mostafa Mirsalim. He played down the differences between the various moderate and hard-line factions.

``It does not seem that the victory of either group will lead to any significant changes in policy,″ Mirsalim told a news conference Thursday. ``It is expected that the policies of President Rafsanjani will be continued.″

But Iranian journalists who have covered previous elections said this campaign was the most openly competitive.

The early turnout appeared relatively light in Tehran, with no long lines at polling stations around the city.

The capital city is allotted 30 seats in Parliament, which meant voters could choose up to 30 candidates from the more than 400 on the Tehran ballot.

Stressing political unity, Rafsanjani said he voted for ``different groups, including independents.″

The outcome of the election is expected to set the tone for next year’s presidential election, when Rafsanjani is required to step down after his second four-year term.

If his followers do well, it will be a boost for the moderate candidate in the 1997 presidential poll. If not, then a hard-line candidate could come to power next year.

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