Mahmoud Hossein Vaezi, an Iranian parliament member, cornered a couple of journalists and rattled off a list of his legislative accomplishments over the past four years.
"I have worked hard for this country and my constituents," he said, beginning a five-minute impromptu speech in a courtyard of the sprawling parliamentary complex. "I only hope that you, respected members of the press, will chronicle my achievements for the benefit of the voters."
Vaezi, a white-turbaned cleric educated in an Islamic seminary, is getting a crash course in pre-election anxiety. He is not alone. Iran's 270 parliament members must put their records on the line in February in what is shaping up to be the most critical parliamentary election since the 1979 revolution.
The conservative parliament, composed of clerics, laymen and women, has proved to be a major obstacle to the liberalizing policies of President Mohammed Khatemi. The democratic reforms he has pushed since being elected in May 1997 have met with stiff resistance from powerful conservative opponents, who still control key levers of power such as parliament, most of the military and the security services.
Since Khatemi's landslide election, his supporters and opponents have been engaged in a power struggle through competing state institutions, and in a vigorous debate played out in the press. At stake is the course of Iran's 20-year-old revolution. The reformists who support Khatemi want more democracy, social liberalization and detente with the West. His conservative opponents want adherence to the authoritarianism, social restrictions and anti-American stance that have marked Iran's politics since the shah was overthrown in 1979.
The parliament, divided among a half-dozen parties but with a conservative majority on most issues, is the latest battleground. Although the elections are still four months away, both sides are throwing all their political and intellectual weight into preparations and political observers sense a potential turning point.
"This election is absolutely critical and could shape Iran's political direction in the next few years," said Hadi Semati, a Tehran University political science professor.
With the election looming, members of parliament are finding much more time to spend with their constituents.
In a tightly packed waiting room outside the parliament entrance, Ahmad, a sun-baked laborer with sunken cheeks, waited nervously one recent day for a meeting with his representative. "My daughter needs surgery and I don't have insurance," he explained. A few hours later, a smiling Ahmad walked by, waving a freshly stamped letter from his representative. Ahmad got his health insurance and the representative got a sure vote.
While political and social freedoms have measurably improved since Khatemi's election, his supporters want to institutionalize the changes through legislation. Conservatives, who view the reforms as a dilution of revolutionary and Islamic values, hope to maintain their slim control of the parliament to block the changes.
Iran's parliament has the power to write all legislation, including key judicial and investment laws. The president has no veto power. "This election is very important to us because the actions of the parliament have run directly counter to our basic principles," Mohammed Ali Abtahi, Khatemi's chief of staff, said in an interview.
Given Khatemi's popularity, most independent analysts believe that an unhampered election would hand victory to the reformists. However, the conservative-led Guardian Council has the power to vet candidates and regularly rejects liberals.
The council, a constitutionally-enshrined body composed of six clerics and six lawyers, is assigned to monitor parliament to make sure it adheres to Iran's Islamic character. It has become the subject of much debate in the press. Reformist papers criticize it as contrary to democratic principles; conservative papers regard it as the last bastion of support for revolutionary values.
Reformists registered an important victory this week when the parliament sent a bill that would potentially curtail the Guardian Council's powers to the the Expediency Council. That body, named by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the mid-1980s, serves as an appeals court to mediate between the parliament and the Guardian Council and advise the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It is currently led by the centrist former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who backed Khatemi's election as president and is seen as sympathetic to the reformers.
Reformists also applauded recent remarks by Khamenei, who has final say on virtually every matter of state. Khamenei, in a clear reference to the Guardian Council, expressed hopes that "all those who would like to serve the country will be given an opportunity to do so in upcoming elections."