Key constituencies disillusioned as Iran votes

TEHRAN Thu Mar 1, 2012 5:56pm EST

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TEHRAN (Reuters) - Like many members of Iran's paramilitary volunteer force, Mohammadreza Baqeri was a supporter of Iran's conservative president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Nearly three years after Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election, the 27-year-old blogger says he will not vote for Ahminadejad's camp in parliamentary elections on Friday.

"I want new faces. I want a vocal parliament that can have an impact in the country," said Baqeri, a member of the Basij paramilitary force. "I want a parliament with young and ambitious lawmakers."

From a working-class background, Ahmadinejad scaled the heights of Iranian politics through promises to help Iran's devout and impoverished masses.

Until recently, he was hailed as a protector of the less fortunate who invested considerable hope in a man few people had heard of before his election in 2005.

His traditionalist, populist outlook also endeared him to young Iranian conservatives, like Baqeri, who were eager to find their role in the future of the Islamic Republic.

With more than two-thirds of the population under the age of 30, it was a crucial support base and one that Ahmadinejad is desperate to retain. But since then things have not gone so well.

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei backed his disputed re-election in 2009, a ballot the opposition said was rigged. A rift developed soon after. The spat came to the fore after Ahmadinejad sacked his intelligence minister, only for the Supreme Leader to reinstate him.

Ahmadinejad has also been blamed for his handling of the economy, which alongside sanctions against Iran, has resulted in soaring inflation and a sinking currency.

"The economic conditions have worsened," said Baqeri, giving a critique of Ahmadinejad's policies. "People want lawmakers who can improve the economy."

Like Baqeri, many young Iranians are disappointed with the current political outlook. This is especially true of supporters of reformist candidates.

With reformist parties banned and leading figures refusing to participate, their supporters feel dejected and vulnerable.

Opposition leaders Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi have been under house arrest for over a year.

"I won't bother voting again, said Alireza, a physics graduate from Tehran University. "My vote in 2009 brought no changes. Our protests didn't change anything either."

The stage is set for the victory of candidates loyal to Ayatollah Khamenei. Analysts say they can count on the support of around 20 million voters. If those parties dominate, as expected, it will extend Khamenei's influence over what will happen in the presidential elections in 2013.

VOICE FOR WOMEN

In the east of the city, Shaqayeq sits in her apartment drinking coffee.

The 37-year-old women's rights activist spoke about the difficulties for women in the current political environment and said she had given up waiting for change happen.

"I don't have much hope for reforms and reformists anymore," she told Reuters.

"Although parliament has the power to pass laws on divorce, inheritance, child custody and other legal matters directly impacting women, previous parliaments have done little for women."

There were just eight sitting women MPs in the previous parliament and Iranian media has reported that the number of women candidates who registered for Friday's elections has fallen by more than 30 percent.

Iranian officials reject allegations of discrimination. Clerics argue that women in Iran are protected from what they say is the sex-symbol status they have in the West and insist the Islamic Republic is implementing God's divine law.

In Iran, women can hold most jobs but activists point to a wide range of legal inconsistencies involving inheritance, compensation and divorce.

The low number of female lawmakers meant "women's problems increase every day, but there is no recourse and they don't have a strong voice in parliament", the Mardomsalari newspaper quoted reformist candidate Soheila Jelodarzadeh as saying.

"Those parties which normally strongly support women's presence in political and social fields aren't competing this time," she said, referring to pro-reform groups.

Many disillusioned young women yearn for a life free of the political and diplomatic drudgery that has become commonplace for Iranians. Some dream of a more material lifestyle as escapism.

"Is it too much to want an ordinary life like young women in other countries? Why can't I just wear make-up, look beautiful and have a boyfriend?", Hamideh said.

Like many girls from lower-income families, the 19-year-old Hamideh said she wanted to find a rich man who could secure her future.

Despite economic sanctions and rising prices, the trappings of wealth are still widely visible on the streets of Tehran. Affluent Iranians go on trips abroad and buy the latest BMWs and Mercedes Benz despite the enormous taxation on imported cars.

"I don't care about politics anymore. I just want to live my life. The Arab countries had uprisings. What happened to them? They have bloodshed instead of freedom," said Sara Garmsari, a student of political science.

While many are disappointed, some hold out hope that things will improve.

"I have waited a long time to vote, says Donya Hashemi, a business student at a private university in Tehran. "I will vote, not because I believe in everything the current government does. But if I don't the reformists will have absolutely no voice in parliament," she said.

"I can never be indifferent to what happens in my country."

(Additional reporting by Mitra Amiri; Editing by Marcus George)

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