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Iran reformists say most of its candidates barred

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran’s main reformist coalition said on Saturday government bodies had barred the vast majority of its key candidates from running in next month’s parliamentary election but that it still planned to contest the vote.

Spokesman for the Coalition of Reformist Groups Abdollah Naseri speaks about the Iran 2008 parliamentary election during a news conference in Tehran February 16, 2008. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl

The Coalition of Reformist Groups criticized a hardline election watchdog which vets candidates for failing to ensure a competitive race in the March 14 vote in the Islamic Republic.

The election for parliament, now dominated by the conservative backers of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will test the popularity of the hardline president who came to power vowing to share out oil wealth more fairly but failed to curb inflation.

“In a surprising and organized act, (government) committees barred 90 percent of our key candidates throughout the country,” Coalition spokesman Abdollah Naseri told a news conference.

The reformist grouping could now only hope to run for some 67 out of 290 seats up for grabs but it would still “compete in the election ... as much as it can despite all the limitations it faces,” he said.

Candidates face a vetting process by government committees and the conservative-controlled Guardian Council, which has stopped hundreds of reformists running in past votes. The council can reinstate those banned during initial screening.

In a preliminary filtering process, more than 2,000 of the 7,200 who registered were barred. The Guardian Council can reinstate hopefuls or bar others based on criteria such as loyalty to the Islamic system.

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After pro-reform politicians like former President Mohammad Khatami voiced concern about mass disqualifications, the Guardian Council said on Saturday it had reinstated about 300 candidates, adding to 280 announced earlier this week.

But Naseri said many of the reformists’ main candidates, including former Education Minister Morteza Haji, remained barred.

“Nothing new has happened for the reformists since this process of reconsidering the cases of some of those initially disqualified began,” he said.

Naseri, who said he also had been disqualified, dismissed as “propaganda” claims by some Iranian media that the scene was now set for a competitive election.

The Guardian Council is expected to announce the final list of eligible candidates in the first week of March.

Parliament does not draw up policy on major issues such as Iran’s nuclear row with the West, but analysts say the result will indicate Ahmadinejad’s chance of re-election in 2009, if he decides to run.

Naseri said an election boycott would only harm the reformists’ image as supporters of the 1979 Islamic revolution.

“Some in the country do not want reformists to be known as the supporters of the revolution,” he said. “We will not allow that to happen under any circumstances.”

Writing by Zahra Hosseinian, Editing by Richard Williams