Election Process Offers Window on Iran

Iranians voted Friday for the local officials who conduct much of the nation's business, and for members of a key clerical body.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

And in Iran, the votes have been cast, but the tally continues this morning. Iranians went to the polls Friday to elect both their local leaders and the members of a powerful clerical body. It's the first chance that citizens of the Islamic Republic have had to send an electoral message to President Ahmadinejad. NPR's Mike Shuster joins us now from the capital, Tehran. Mike, thanks for being with us.

MIKE SHUSTER: You're welcome, Scott.

SIMON: And first, the local elections. One of the hottest races, I gather, is for the Tehran city council. Why are municipal races so crucial there?

SHUSTER: Well, for one, municipal races and town council races are the most direct form of representative government in Iran. And the officials that are elected can have the most impact over local problems and therefore over the - directly over the daily lives of Iran's public. The Tehran election, the Tehran city council election, is very interesting because the city council chooses the mayor, and there is a big budget and this is a position that can vault a somewhat obscure politician to national attention in Iran, and that's exactly what happened with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Before he was elected president last year, he was Iran's mayor. He became quite famous. And as a result, he mounted a successful presidential campaign.

SIMON: What are some of the slates, if you please, or factions that are involved in this municipal election?

SHUSTER: Well, the important one is that when Ahmadinejad was elected, he didn't run on the slate of a political party, but in the last year he's created his own political party, and that party is putting up candidates. So obviously he's looking to consolidate his power locally, around the country, and demonstrate that he is in fact a very popular and powerful politician. There is a reformist faction that's putting up candidates as well.

In past elections, the reformers, the more liberal faction, were splintered and suffered in the past two elections, the presidential election and the parliamentarian election. This time they're got a coalition and a single slate. The conservatives are divided. So there's a hope among reformers that they may be able to regain some of the political space they've lost over the last few years.

SIMON: Well, wasn't turnout an issue in the last election?

SHUSTER: Turnout is an issue in every Iranian election, and it's interesting, Scott, because all the Iranian leaders constantly hail the fact that people come out to vote. It has seemed to me - and I've covered several Iranian elections displaying a certain lack of confidence that the Iranian public is really committed to this system. Nevertheless, there are 46 million registered Iranian voters; probably more than 20 million actually voted. This will be seen most likely as a legitimate election and at least a verification, for the moment, that much of the Iranian public is willing to come out, exercise a measure of democracy, and support the Islamic system.

SIMON: Well, what about the other electoral contests for the Assembly of Experts? These are 86 senior clerics who have enormous influence in the state.

SHUSTER: This is very important Scott. This Assembly of Experts is only elected every eight years. In fact, the one that was voted for yesterday will sit for 10 years. And this is the body of clerics that selects Iran's supreme leader. And Iran's supreme leader is the one with the most power, more powerful than the president.

Now, what's interesting is that this body can be elected. It's elected directly by the people. And it can or cannot exercise its power over the supreme leader. It can allow him to stay. His term is indefinite. If he dies, it will choose another one, his successor. And under a certain extreme set of political circumstances, it does have the power to remove the supreme leader and find a replacement.

SIMON: You know, I don't want to overlook naïve but fundamental questions. Any women on the ballot?

SHUSTER: There are women on the ballot. There are many women on the ballot for town and city councils. There are several women on the ballot for the city council of Iran. There are no women on the ballot for the Assembly of Experts.

SIMON: And there couldn't be?

SHUSTER: There could be, but at this stage of history, unlikely that they would choose women to run for the Assembly of Experts.

SIMON: NPR's Mike Shuster in Tehran, thanks so much.

SHUSTER: You're welcome Scott.

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