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Iranian Elections Highlight Youths’ Growing Alienation

Times Staff Writer

Iranians cast ballots Friday in acrimony-ridden parliamentary elections that illustrated the gulf between conservatives poised to take control of the parliament and the nation’s vast pool of young people, many of them disaffected, unemployed or turning away from Islam.

The recent disqualification of many pro-reform candidates by the hard-line Guardian Council made victory appear certain for the conservatives. Among reformists, some of whom were boycotting the election, the mood Friday was funereal, with many predicting a setback for democracy in Iran.

The conservatives sought to boost their legitimacy by launching a feverish last-minute campaign to get out the vote. In the face of public apathy, they took to television, radio and mosques Friday to urge people to head to the polls.

State television, controlled by conservatives, ran long, patriotic documentaries and footage that linked the parliamentary vote to the 1979 Islamic Revolution that brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power.

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Leading prayers Friday, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the head of the Guardian Council, which blocked scores of reform bills passed by parliament in recent years, said every vote was a bullet in the heart of President Bush. Meanwhile, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said enemies of the revolution were trying to deter young people from voting but would not succeed.

Polling places were kept open at least two extra hours Friday night in many neighborhoods, and the state news agency, IRNA, said there was a high turnout, but it supplied no figures.

Several polling places in the capital appeared to be busy Friday night, including one at a mosque in a neighborhood that is home to many chic younger people. But the turnout was lighter at some polling places, and in city parks, many said they had boycotted the election or just not bothered to vote.

Reformists fear that conservatives, in taking control of the parliament, will increase restrictions on Iran’s media and limit social freedoms.

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Ibrahim Yazdi, leader of the Freedom Movement, said he felt extremely sad, recalling the golden moment of hope 25 years ago when he flew back from exile in France with Khomeini to a triumphal welcome.

“The atmosphere was full of joy and somehow also chaotic. Watching the television last night brought all the memories back. I was very sad to think of where we wanted to go, and where we have ended,” he said.

Yazdi’s organization was among the reform parties that refused to take part in the elections, calling them undemocratic. In all, 80 incumbent reformist members of parliament were disqualified from the ballot by the Guardian Council. More than 120 allied lawmakers resigned in protest.

Conservatives, meanwhile, sought not to alienate their opponents Friday.

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“What we have promised people is that we will lower the social and political tensions and the factional tensions in the next parliament, and we will pay more attention of the real problems that people are facing,” said Haddad Adel, one of the main candidates of the most prominent conservative group running in the elections, the Developers of Islamic Iran.

Adel termed the voter turnout “heartwarming.”

Casting his vote, reformist President Mohammad Khatami made mild comments characteristic of his tendency to avoid confrontation. He said Iranians had suffered failures in the past yet still made surprising headway. Whatever the result, he said, it must be accepted.

Iran’s demographic trends pose the biggest challenge for the conservatives. With two-thirds of the nation’s citizens younger than 30, there is a widespread hunger for jobs, economic progress and greater social freedom -- pressures that are likely to strain political divisions that afflict even religious hard-liners and the more pragmatic conservatives who are eager to attract foreign investment.

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The election starkly illustrated the broader fissures in Iranian society. Older conservative voters who thronged to Friday prayers complained that many of the young are dismissive of Islam, while young people buzzed about on Honda and Shahab motorbikes, had lunch at popular kebab restaurants or lounged in parks.

“I don’t like these young men who have long hair like women,” said Zakrar Maharer, a 45-year-old conservative who stuck out a blue-inked fingertip from her black, ground-length chador to show where she had been fingerprinted to vote. “I don’t like it at all, and I want it to change. Young women wear a lot of makeup. It’s not nice. They don’t cover themselves properly.

“We sacrificed so many martyrs so as not to have to see these things,” she complained, expressing the hope that the police and judiciary would arrest such conspicuous, fashion-conscious citizens after the elections.

For many young Iranians, voting was not on the agenda Friday. “I haven’t any intention of voting,” said Omid Bamdad, 32, a physician. “I’m not at all interested in political stuff. I have my personal stuff and my own personal world.”

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Javad Refayat Minayee, 21 and unemployed, also did not vote and said he never would, expressing disillusionment with both the reformers he felt did not deliver and with Iran’s elite.

“The mullahs have the country in their hands, and they’re not thinking about anyone else,” he said, complaining about high prices and low wages.

Those in situations similar to Minayee’s may represent the toughest challenge for Iran’s future. He worked most recently as a tea seller for two months and sports rough calluses from carrying the heavy kettle and sugar. Many of his friends are also jobless, he said, or addicted to drugs.

With presidential elections in two years, conservatives appear eager to not alarm the populace.

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Adel said that reintroducing Islamic restrictions “is not our main or our first priority” -- although he left open the possibility of new curbs.

Adel added that the large cohort of disaffected, nonreligious youth was “our main problem.” But he argued that when more jobs were created and living standards improved, it would be easier to attract young people to the Islamic faith.

“The point is that we believe that if our young generation feels that we are doing our best to solve their problems, they surely will be tolerant. We are sure that they will accept that we are helping them,” he said.

Yazdi, the Freedom Movement leader, said that the young had grown up under 25 years of Islamic rule “yet there’s nothing to make them hopeful for the future.”

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He predicted, however, that women’s activism and discontent among the youth would limit conservatives’ prerogatives after their victory.

“Because of these two forces, I believe the future belongs to democracy in Iran,” he said.


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