Middle East

Iran: Khatami Tsunami

The message to conservatives in the Iranian government was clear. Voters turned out in record numbers on June 8 to give reformist President Muhammad Khatami 77 percent of the vote, a greater margin than in his 1997 landslide, and an open door to a second term.

For the people of Tehran, who were seemingly united in their support for Khatami, it was time to celebrate. The reformist Hayat-e-No (June 11) reported that once Khatami’s victory was official, thousands of people flooded the streets of the capital, exchanging flowers and sweets and pasting photos of their president on cars.

The mood was infectious. Even the normally dour, conservative Kayhan, which had led witch-hunts of reformist journalists in recent months, declared Khatami’s victory a win for “the Islamic Revolution” (June 9) and noted, “There is now no valid excuse for blocking the reforms desired by the masses.”

The importance of this election was not lost on the voting public. “Election or referendum?” read one headline in the government-owned Iran (June 11), which summed up the feeling that Iranian voters were making a crucial choice about their preferred style of government, and their desire for personal freedom, rather than for a
single candidate. “These elections weren’t only about choosing a candidate,” Khatami said in a postelection speech quoted in Iran (June 11), “but about choosing a particular direction and focus.”

Khatami’s sweep comes as no surprise. Since he announced his candidacy, analysts had been predicting an easy victory. But what he does with this mandate is the real issue.

“Iranian voters realized that if Mr. Khatami was not put into office with the strong support of the public, his governmental initiatives, particularly reform, would grind to a halt. The impression still exists that he will deliver democracy to the hopeful,” said an editorial in Tehran’s reformist Aftab-e-Yazd (June 9).

How much Khatami can accomplish is debatable. On the day after the election,
Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose constitutional powers surpass the president’s, said, “Everyone must respect and obey the newly elected president,” (Iran, June 9). But few people in the Iranian government have shown Khatami and his reform agenda less respect than Khamenei, who holds the reins to the judiciary, the armed forces, and the broadcast media—all of which he has employed, at one time or other, to block reform and muzzle the press.

Given Khatami’s resounding win, conservatives may have to concede that their political survival hinges on some degree of compromise. “Have the conservatives finally realized that the forces of change are united against them?” asked an editorial in Hayat-e-No (June 11). Perhaps. The key to Khatami’s success will lie in his ability to appease conservatives without losing the faith of the public.

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