The outgoing speaker of Iran's parliament yesterday defended taking part in this week's election for a new assembly even though hardline clerics have barred most reformist candidates from running.
Mehdi Karoubi acknowledged that Friday's vote would not be fair since an unelected Guardian Council of senior clerics has disqualified 2,500 contestants, including more than 80 sitting lawmakers, as unislamic or disloyal to the constitution.
"It's not a fair election because of wide disqualifications, but we can discuss if it's a free election or not, because people are free to vote or not," he told a news conference.
"We believe that our presence is more useful than just not participating," said Karoubi, a member of the pro-reform Association of Combatant Clerics.
Reformist supporters of President Mohammed Kh-atami said yesterday they were bound to lose because hardliners had rigged the candidate lists so conservatives faced no reformist opponent for 132 of the 290 seats.
The biggest reformist party, the Islamic Iran Participation Front, led by Khatami's brother, Mohammed Reza, is boycotting the poll after all its candidates were banned.
Karoubi, himself a mid-ranking cleric, said the Guardian Council had become politicised, and that splits among clerics could damage Iranians' faith in Islam.
In an interview with Sharq newspaper, he forecast that the conservatives would use their control of the next parliament to impeach Khatami's most reformist ministers.
Most Iranians have appeared indifferent to the latest round of a long-running power struggle, having lost faith in Khatami's ability to deliver change due to the conservatives' hold on the levers of power.
In contrast to the 2000 parliamentary election at the height of the reform movement's popularity, this campaign is largely invisible in Tehran with few posters, no big rallies and no walkabouts by election candidates.
Political analysts forecast a low turnout, especially in the big cities which were the reformists' strong-holds.
Amir Ali Nourbakhsh, a political analyst at business consultants Atieh Bahar, said that by focusing on rural areas the conservatives might achieve a turnout of between 35 and 45 per cent, compared to 67 per cent in 2000.
Karoubi, a leading activist in the Islamic revolution 25 years ago, said: "The revolution belongs to everyone, to all Iranians. We are not going to turn our backs on the ballot boxes, because we believe the people's vote is the yardstick."
He said the Coalition for Iran, whose candidate list he leads, had a slate of 205 or 206 hopefuls, whom he described as "a mixture of independents, reformists and moderate conservatives".
The Interior Ministry said that by late Sunday, 679 out of 5,600 candidates approved to run had withdrawn from the race.
Iran's main pro-reform student group, the Office to Consolidate Unity (OCU), strongly criticised Khatami on Sunday for agreeing to hold the election and urged voters to stay away.