ANKARA (Reuters) - Many Iranian women and young people are disillusioned about the upcoming elections, desperate for reform but losing hope in their pragmatic president and his promise of a freer society.
The Feb. 26 parliamentary poll will see pro-reform candidates, who broadly back President Hassan Rouhani, attempt to overturn the majority held by conservative hardliners in the 290-seat assembly. It will be a test of public support for Rouhani himself ahead of presidential elections next year.
While the vote might not have an influence on foreign policy, which is determined by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the election of a reformist parliament could strengthen Rouhani’s hand to push through economic reforms to open up the country to foreign trade and investment.
Rouhani won the presidency in 2013, bolstered by the support of many women and young people who were encouraged by his comments that Iranians deserved to live in free country and have the rights enjoyed by other people around the world.
“I am not going to make the same mistake twice. I have decided not to vote,” said Setareh, a university graduate in the northern city of Rasht. “I voted for Rouhani - was he able to improve my situation? No.”
Rouhani’s supporters hoped that his election victory would lead to social change in country where women have lesser rights than men in areas including inheritance, divorce and child custody and are subject to travel and dress restrictions, and strict Islamic law is enforced by a “morality police”.
But rights campaigners say there has been little, if any, moves to bring about greater political and cultural freedoms as the president has focused on striking the nuclear accord wit world powers to end the international sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy.
Iran rejects any allegations it is discriminating against women, saying it follows Sharia law.
Now Rouhani and his moderate allies are struggling to mobilize two of their main support bases - women and young people.
The president’s promises to loosen Internet restrictions have not been met. Access to social media remains officially blocked, though Rouhani and Khamenei have their own Twitter accounts.
This has been a particular grievance among those under 30, who represent more than two-thirds of the 78 million population and were born after the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed Shah.
“I am not going to vote. What is the use of voting? My hopes are shattered,” said a 27-year-old engineer in Tehran, who refused to give his name.
The president’s constitutional powers are limited, with ultimate authority in the hands of Khamenei, who has lambasted the West for using women as a tool to advertise products and satisfy “disorderly and unlawful sexual needs”.
The Feb. 26 elections will also see the public vote for members of the Assembly of Experts, a clerical body that could play a pivotal part in determining Iran’s future path in both domestic and foreign policies - as at some point it will have the job of selecting a successor to 76-year-old Khamenei.
Iranian women, who make up more than half of the population, are among the most highly educated in the Middle East; they have a literacy rate of over 80 percent and account for over 50 percent of university entrees.
But under Iranian law, men can divorce their spouses far more easily than women, while custody of children over seven automatically goes to the father.
Women have to get permission from their husbands to travel abroad. They are obliged to cover their hair and the shape of their bodies, their testimony as a legal witness is worth half that of a man, and daughters inherit half of what sons do.
While they cannot run for president, they are however able to hold most jobs including other government positions, and can vote and drive.
“What will change if I vote?” said Miriam, 26, who could not win custody of her eight-year-old son after getting divorced in the central city of Isfahan. “Can reformist candidates give me equal rights?”
A report by the U.N. special rapporteur on Iran last year said human rights in the country “remained dire” under Rouhani, while separately a U.N. child rights watchdog said this month that girls faced discriminatory treatment “in family relations, criminal justice system, property rights”.
Iran denies any infringement of human rights.
Retired government employee Fariba Khamesi, from Tehran, said that even if there had been little evidence of social change, she would not give up her hopes for a freer Iran.
“Of course I will vote in the elections. There are many problems like the economic pressure, discriminatory laws against women, but if we don’t cast our vote, conservatives will gain more power,” the 58-year-old said.
‘PAIN AND PROBLEMS’
Rouhani’s hardline rivals accuse him of having encouraged moral corruption in the society by advocating social tolerance.
Moderate politicians remain faithful to Iran’s theocratic system, but they advocate improved relations with the West, more freedom of expression and a loosening of strict Islamic rules governing dress and mingling between the sexes.
“As an Iranian female candidate it is my duty to fight for their rights,” said Soheila Jelodarzadeh, a pro-reform female candidate. “Women are determined to build Iran. And by casting our votes, we can reach that goal.”
International sanctions were lifted last month under a deal reached with six major powers in 2015 in return for Tehran curbing its nuclear program, but it will take time to bring down high unemployment and raise living standards.
Student Hosseini, 17, whose father is a construction worker in the city of Mashhad, said moderate politicians had neglected the poor. “I will vote for those candidates who believe in pillars of the revolution. They will never forget people like my father and will understand our pain and problems,” he said.
Rouhani has called for curbs on the state’s involvement in business and a push to end corruption and increase competition to end Iran’s international isolation and help rescue the economy.
He has invited foreign investment - including from U.S. companies - risking a confrontation with powerful conservative factions in the country’s multi-tiered political system oppose his plans to open the Iranian economy to the world, fearing an infiltration of Western values and influence.
Some pro-reform politicians have told Reuters that by securing Khamenei’s consent to the nuclear deal, Rouhani depleted his political capital with the supreme leader, leaving nothing for domestic reforms.
“Rouhani may want to create some changes but he is by no means a political opposition figure to the clerical establishment,” said a senior Western diplomat in Tehran.
“No matter which political faction wins the majority in the parliament. The ultimate power will remain in the hands of Mr. Khamenei.”
Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Pravin Char