Iran's rulers risk alienating voters by candidate bans

Wed May 22, 2013 9:02am EDT
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By Yeganeh Torbati and Marcus George

DUBAI (Reuters) - Iran's clerical rulers may have sought to remove any challenge to their grip by barring two vivid contenders from next month's presidential election, but they risk alienating voters already disillusioned by the violent aftermath of the 2009 poll.

The June 14 vote will have little bearing on the policies that have long put Iran at odds with the West - ranging from its nuclear program to its support for Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and Lebanon's Shi'ite Hezbollah guerrillas.

These will remain firmly under the control of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has refused to curb sensitive atomic work despite crippling Western sanctions and Israeli and U.S. threats of military action. Iran denies seeking nuclear weapons.

Yet Iran's rulers have always seen a high election turnout, as underpinning their legitimacy - hence the danger of voiding them of any credibility in the eyes of voters by using the many institutional levers available to limit free democratic choice.

The Guardian Council, a vetting body, disqualified ex-President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, despite his hefty political role in the past three decades, as well as Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's former chief of staff, leaving a field dominated by hardliners loyal to Khamenei.

Ahmadinejad said on Wednesday he would ask Khamenei to reverse the ban on Mashaie. Rafsanjani, a pillar of the 1979 Islamic Revolution who has held a series of powerful positions in the past, will not appeal, his campaign chief said.

Barring surprises, their elimination sets the stage for a Khamenei loyalist from the "principlist" camp to win - and will disappoint many Iranians, notably those from urban and middle-class backgrounds, who had hoped for a more open contest.

"I feel indifferent," said a 33-year-old dissident journalist in Tehran who gave his name only as Hamed.   Continued...