Many are disillusioned at President Khatami's inability to push though his social and economic policies. In 1999 the reformists swept local elections, showing tremendous support for Khatami. However, with the Guardian Council and the conservatives that hold all other key positions in government standing strong, the reform policy has ground to a halt.
Another reason for public frustration is the example set by the first Tehran city council. It bickered within itself and with city hall until the council was dissolved by the Interior Ministry. "The activities of certain municipal councils have created problems for their towns. It's true that in some places the municipal councils have worked well," the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei commented. "But in others certain political groups, tendencies and factions have engaged in such machinations that people no longer have confidence in them." Regardless, President Khatami called the first councils a "successful experience despite some problems," saying that "some of the deficiencies and shortcomings are related to the impotency of regulations and some others to the novicehood (in this respect) and I hope that we will see these problems be tackled in the second councils. The government must set the scene for better and freer operation of the councils it is necessary to make the councils more efficient and dynamic."
The elections were also be a test to the radical dissident party, the Iran Freedom Movement (IFM). The IFM was banned in a 2000 crackdown when the conservative judiciary put many of its members on trial, and 8 of 15 were found guilty of trying to buck Islamic control. They see this vote as a way to show that the public doesn't agree with the charges and convictions that have been passed down. Even though the courts have shut down many of the pro-reform newspapers, the remaining ones have given space to IFM candidates. The IFM leadership calls these municipal elections the fairest because the candidates were not checked by the Guardian Council which rules out all candidates that they believe do not represent Islamic ideals.
This year dissidents were allowed on the ballot because reformers are now in control of the parliamentary committee which controls who goes on those ballots and the Interior Ministry which administers the elections. However, Ayatollah Khamenei has voiced concerns that the qualifications of many candidates were not checked before being allowed to run. He has promised to nullify the election of anybody found to go against regulations. Many radicals read this as a veiled threat to overturn elections of anybody not deemed "Muslim enough."
The candidate demographics are interesting. Among all the would-bes there are only 1,200 clerics, but female candidates are on a 20 percent rise from four years ago, totaling 6,000. Many of the conservatives feel that they lack any support base and have entered the race in stealth, signing on as independents and electing to stay off of party lists. "Hard-liners refused to run because they know they have no popular base and are doomed to fail. They can't tolerate more public humiliation at the polls," explains Ebrahim Yazdi, leader of the IFM. Many of the conservatives are also calling for people to boycott the elections, saying that it gives tacit support to the reformist ideas. Assadollah Badamshian, a leader of the conservative Islamic Coalition Association, admonishes "Real believers will not take part in the vote."
This year's campaign has been a relatively uneventful and quiet, without the previous election's religios or revolutionary rhetoric. It has featured many interesting or offbeat candidates, though.
Mohammad Reza Khatami, the brother of President Khatami, leads the main reform group, the Islamic Iran Participation Front. He is campaigning under the slogans "Iran for the Iranians" and "City Councils Form the Basis of Democracy."
A moderate group, The Servants of Construction, has plastered pictures of former 1989 to 1999 Tehran Mayor, Gholamhossein Karbaschi, across the city. His modernization projects were well-liked when he was in office, but in January 2002 he was sentenced to several years of jail time on corruption charges for causing drastic increases in house prices in a plot to keep control of housing policies. Later, after serving only five months of his sentence, he was pardoned by Ayatollah Khamenei. The flyers read, "With us, Karbaschi will return," since in Iran the local city councils appoint a mayor.
A Tehran doctor campaigning for a council seat tried to catch the eyes of people in another way, opting for posters showing him in a tie, a symbol of Western life that was banned soon after the 1979 Islamic revolution. His slogan was "Voters, I abandoned the comforts of the West to take care of your comforts." Another Tehrani candidate rode around the city on his motorbike with a sign attached to his back, "I am your servant."
Jomhuri-Eslami Daily, a reformist paper has reported that a candidate paid women to walk about affluent areas of Mashad in northeast Iran wearing his campaign posters as clothing and the required Islamic headscarf. Meanwhile in the same city, near a school, a candidate was handing out calendars of a popular Persian singer from the days of the Shah. The calendars were targeted at the young teenagers that are eligible to vote.
The pro-reform journalist Mohsen Sazengara, who was recently released from his February 18th arrest for questioning the cleric leadership and writing scathing public letters to the Ayatollah Khamenei, is also on the ballot in Tehran. Many of the reformers plan to elect Sazengara if they take control of the council.
The wife of Hashem Aghajari, the academic who was first sentenced to death and later had his conviction repealed after criticizing the hierarchy of the Guardian Council, is running too.
Even the 200-pound category world champion wrestler Rassul Kadem and singer Hossein Zaman have joined into the action.
Despite all the problems this election brings to surface, additional polling boxes were brought into Tehran because of a high expected turnout. In 1999 voter turnout was 64.41 percent across the country. Many predict that this year only 60 percent of those eligible will vote. President Khatami has a different take on public apathy, "Iranians are not disappointed. They are perhaps critical and believe many of their demands have not been met, but I think more than 50 percent will vote because people believe in their country and in the regime." However, he appears to be out of touch. "Why should I vote? What was the result of my previous votes? I want to show that I am dissatisfied with the whole system by not voting," said Ali, a 25-year-old university student.
Over the weekend partial results started to roll in, culminating in official announcements made on Monday. To the shock of everybody, the reformists were handed a crushing defeat as conservative hard-liners virtually swept the elections. In the first conservative victory at the polls since President Khatami's landslide 1997 victory, they took 14 of the 15 Tehran city council seats, and the best the reformers could muster was winning three standby seats in Tehran that would take effect if any of the 15 winners do not claim their position. Similar results were reported across the rest of the country.
In 1999 all reformist parties presented a single unified list of candidates, however this year, in another sign of a fractured group, 18 parties put up three separate lists of candidates. "We accept that we have lost the elections and we consider it our duty to take lessons from this defeat. This defeat has made our path longer and more difficult," said Ali Shakourirad, a senior member of the Participation Front.
"We should respect the people's vote, because they are present when a war takes place, they are present when their country is subjected to economic sanctions, so they are master of the community," President Khatami said, seemingly accepting the defeat in stride. "The people become disappointed with the government system when they see the system takes its own way separate from what the people demand and is unable to handle the state of affairs properly."
Allowing this reversal to happen was staggeringly low voter turnout. Just 39 percent of those eligible to vote went to the polls and as few as 562,000 voters in Tehran, just 12 percent. The referendum on Khatami's agenda schedule clearly failed.
Parvis Esmaeili, the Managing Directory for the Tehran Times, didn't see the low turnout or election results as a defeat of reform, though. "Radicalism and sloganeering were defeated in the recent elections and the main message of the municipal elections were moderation and pragmatism," he said. "The defeat of those who claim to be reformists is not the defeat of reformism, we need reform, but genuine reform."
With parliamentary elections next year, President Khatami and the rest of the reformists have much to prove if they do not want to see yet another branch of government over-run by conservatives.