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In Iran, Students Urge Citizens Not to Vote

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 19, 2004; Page A26

TEHRAN -- A new movement of passive resistance is quietly sweeping young people in Iran, a response both to the reform movement's failure to introduce political and economic change and conservatives' control over who can run for office, according to Iranian student leaders and political analysts.

Students have launched a campaign to convince people not to vote in presidential elections next May, so as to discredit the results -- and all parties. The movement, combined with significant apathy among older voters, represents one of the most significant challenges to the Islamic republic 25 years after a revolution toppled the monarchy, students and analysts here say.

Billboards in Tehran urged citizens to vote in February parliamentary elections, in which hundreds of candidates were excluded by the hard-line Guardian Council. (John Moore -- AP)

"Our message is that by not giving our vote, the government won't have legitimacy," said Abdollah Momeni, a leader of the Office to Consolidate Unity who has been detained by authorities twice. "We want to show that it is an undemocratic government."

With some 70 percent of the population under age 25, Iran's youth is a pivotal voice in politics, especially since the voting age is 16. They were the most influential force in the 1997 upset victory of President Mohammed Khatami, a dark-horse reform candidate, largely through a word-of-mouth campaign, analysts here say.

They now plan to do it again. "Almost every family has at least one student. It was the students who introduced Khatami by telling their families about him," Momeni said. "Students are now explaining why they don't want to participate in the next election."

The movement reflects a shift among Iran's youth, its leaders say. The Office to Consolidate Unity, Iran's largest student organization with branches on some 50 campuses, first gained fame by leading the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy. The 52 Americans seized there were held 444 days.

But its focus has evolved over the past quarter-century from Islamic radicalism to a pro-democracy agenda and recently to outright dissent against all parties, according to Davood Bovand, a political analyst and former diplomat.

"Students don't care anymore about dividing the regime into reformers or conservatives," he said. "Nonparticipation is now a form of voting against the system as a whole."

A local survey this fall of students at 20 Iranian universities found that only 6 percent of students were interested or participating in politics, Iran's Labor News Agency reported.

Turnout is already a problem for the government. Compared with participation during the eight-year reform era, turnout dropped significantly in February's parliamentary elections -- to a record low of 51 percent nationally and only 28 percent in Tehran -- and in city council elections last year. Students take part of the credit for urging voters to boycott the election, although analysts say public apathy played a big role, too.

But political analysts predict a new low in the next national poll -- unless the results are padded or fixed. "The 2005 election is going to be something very special in the way it shows how people are separating themselves from politics," said Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, an editor who has been jailed three times and worked at five newspapers closed by the government.

The students' main complaint is the banning of candidates by the Council of Guardians, a conservative clerical panel that is empowered to veto anyone running for public office and any legislation. In parliamentary elections this year, more than 2,000 candidates, most of them reformists, were disqualified, including more than 80 incumbents.

"We are looking for a fair election, which means all people and all parties are allowed to run," said Majid Hajibabai, a member of the student group's central council.

Iran's young activists are also disillusioned with Khatami and the reform movement, with many now believing the theocracy is fundamentally unable to open up, politicians admit.

"People still want change and they vote for anyone they think will be able to change something. But their expectations have not been realized over the past eight years," said Mohsen Mirdamadi, a former student activist and a ringleader of the embassy takeover who later became a reform member of parliament and chairman of its foreign relations committee. He was among the incumbents disqualified from running this year.

The shift among Iran's youth also reflects the emergence of a "me generation," according to analysts and student leaders. In contrast to the revolutionary causes that rallied the revolution's first generation, Hajibabai said, Iran's youth today is more focused on material issues.

"Iran had a big birth boom between 1980 and 1985. They put Khatami in power when they were 16 to 21 because they wanted freedom," added Amir Mohebian, a conservative political analyst. "But now they're in their twenties and they want to marry and get a house and job, so the discourse has changed to how to cope with their economic situation."

Because of that baby boom -- initially urged by the clerics, who later reversed policy -- Iran now needs to create up to 800,000 jobs a year, analysts say.

As a result, political opposition among Iran's youth over the next decade could grow significantly, Mohebian said, because neither reformers nor conservatives have effective economic programs to spur job creation. "This reality," he predicted, "will change many things."

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