Iran’s raucous election campaign goes quiet


Iran’s raucous election campaign fell silent a day before the vote as rallies were barred Thursday to give the public time to reflect on whether they want to keep hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power or replace him with a reformist more open to closer ties with the West.

The campaign reached a crescendo in the past few days with dueling rallies by supporters of Ahmadinejad and his main challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, that drew tens of thousands into the streets of Tehran. Fervent, youthful supporters of Mousavi accused the president of undermining Iran’s international standing with his confrontational style and of devastating the economy.

The stakes are extremely high for Iran — the new leader must decide how to respond to President Barack Obama’s offer for dialogue after a nearly 30-year diplomatic chill. The Obama administration is cautiously watching the vote for signs the Islamic Republic may be willing to engage, but U.S. officials have meager expectations for change.

Tehran residents went about removing posters and banners from buildings and cars as campaigning officially ended early Thursday. State media and the candidate’s Web sites encouraged people to vote on Friday.

“I ask people to go to polling stations in early hours of voting, otherwise in the latter hours stations will be crowded,” said the head of election headquarters, Kamran Daneshjou, according to the state news agency, IRNA. About 40,000 polling stations are set to open at 8 a.m. Friday.

On Thursday, the Interior Ministry issued a statement asking people to report any voting violations to their local governors’ offices. Daneshjou also said violations should be reported and that the headquarters will allow about 110,000 representatives of the candidates to be present in the stations nationwide.

Mousavi’s official Web site also urged people to inform his campaign office of any irregular voting. The Web site provided a list of possible violations, including the existence of extra ballots, campaign materials at polling stations and organized harassment.

“We wish you victory by electing Mir Hossein Mousavi and saving the country from the current situation,” the Web site said.

The country’s Basij paramilitary corps also encouraged people to vote to annoy the enemies of Islam — an apparent reference to the United States. The Basij, which is often involved in crackdowns on dissidents, was key in helping Ahmadinejad win in 2005.

“The people of Iran will choose someone who will resist bullying of those who are arrogant and defend Iran’s interest in the world,” the corps said in a statement, according to IRNA.

In the final hours of the fierce contest, Mousavi got a sharp warning from the country’s powerful Revolutionary Guard that authorities would crush any attempt at a popular “revolution” inspired by the huge rallies and street parties calling for more freedoms.

The threat Wednesday reflected the increasingly tense atmosphere surrounding the up-for-grabs election. It also marked a sharp escalation by the ruling clerics against Mousavi’s youth-driven campaign and its hopes of an underdog victory.

The Revolutionary Guard is one of the pillars of the Islamic establishment and controls large military forces as well as a nationwide network of militia volunteers.

The message from the Guards’ political chief, Yadollah Javani, appeared aimed at rattling Mousavi’s backers just before the polls open Friday and to warn that it would not tolerate the formation of a post-election political force under the banner of Mousavi’s “green movement” — the signature color of his campaign.

In a statement on the Guards’ Web site, Javani drew parallels between Mousavi’s campaign and the “velvet revolution” that led to the 1989 ouster of the communist government in then-Czechoslovakia, saying “some extremist (reformist) groups, have designed a colorful revolution … using a specific color for the first time in an election.”

Javani called it a “sign of kicking off a velvet revolution project in the presidential elections,” and vowed any “attempt for velvet revolution will be nipped in the bud.” It also accused the reformists of planning to claim vote rigging and provoke street violence if Mousavi loses.

The all-night street rallies and the joyful campaign of Mousavi’s supporters have rekindled the passions and hopes of reformists after Ahmadinejad’s victory four years ago. Their calls are similar to the days of reformist President Mohammad Khatami — more social freedoms, media openness and outreach to the West.

The election outcome will have little direct impact on Iran’s key policies — including its nuclear program or possible talks with Washington — which are directly dictated by the ruling Islamic clerics. Still, the president has influence over some domestic affairs, such as the economy, and serves as Iran’s highest-ranking envoy on the international stage.

Ahmadinejad is believed to have wide support in the Revolutionary Guard and among Iran’s ruling clerics, though neither have given public endorsements in a presidential race that has seen the sudden and unexpected rise of Mousavi, who served as prime minister in the 1980s.

Mousavi has accused Ahmadinejad of attempting to whitewash the scope of Iran’s problems, which include double-digit inflation and chronic unemployment and criticized the hard-line president for blackening Iran’s international reputation by questioning the Holocaust and calling for Israel’s destruction.

Two other candidates are in the race: former Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezaei and former parliament speaker Mahdi Karroubi. In the increasingly tight race, their level of support could play a swing role — with Rezaei expected to draw conservative voters and Karroubi pulling in moderates.

AP.org

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