by Ramin Mostaghim
(IPS) TEHRAN -- Last month's elections, in which Conservatives declared a resounding victory and reformist politicians failed to pull off a nationwide boycott of the polls, remind some Iranians of propaganda's power.
Reflecting on the Feb. 20 national polls, 40-year-old taxi driver Ali Ha midi recalled with a wink: ''When I was a conscripted soldier during the Iran-Iraq war, in the ruins of many western and southern Iranian cities an official graffiti read, 'Propaganda is more effective than any killer weapon.'"
Conservative candidates have claimed some two-thirds of the national assembly's 295 seats. Reformists and independent candidates shared the remaining seats, a major setback for reformists who lost more than 100 seats. Some 60 constituencies are to hold a second round of voting but the results are not expected to shift the balance of power.
The conservative victory had been expected as thousands of reformist candidates were barred from standing.
The question of how many voters actually turned out to cast ballots remains controversial. Pro-conservative officials and media have reported higher turnout but reformists maintain that 70 percent of voters in the capital and 50 percent nationwide heeded their calls to shun voting in protest of the candidates' disqualification.
Even officials have said, however, that more than 10 percent of ballots counted in the capitol were blank or invalid, meaning that voters wrote comments against the regime on their forms.
Even so, many reformists have found reasons for soul searching and say they failed to mobilize a nationwide boycott of the polls.
Hadi Qabel, a reformist political activist and mullah, or religious cleric, summed up the factors he blamed for the conservatives' sweep, thus: ''Nonstop propaganda wooing people to the ballot boxes on the radio and TV, and alien powers' threats, particularly America's pressure regarding nuclear activities."
Rouzbeh Hasanzadeh, a 30-year-old psychologist who runs a Tehran advertising firm, said the reformists were to blame for their downfall.
''Why is it that in the presidential election about seven years ago and in previous parliamentary elections the same radio and TV propaganda against reformists did not work?'' Hasanzadeh said. ''The answers should be found in the agenda, platforms, and practice of the reformists."
Reformist journalist Majid Modarresi said that on the ground, conservatives simply outmaneuvred reformists.
''Populism and demagoguery and blustering empty rhetoric were the weapons of our reformists in their campaigns in the past two elections and this time around the same tools were utilized by their rivals,'' he said.
Political analyst Hussain Mosavi, 34, said conservatives took advantage of the reformists' lack of a unified vision.
''Tribalism and kinship in the provincial towns were cleverly exploited by the conservatives to draw people to the ballot boxes,'' he said.
Modarresi, the reformist journalist, said the results clearly marked a challenge to those who would challenge the conservative establishment.
''From now on, the true reformists should go to the grassroots and ... contribute to shaping civil society in Iran.'' Such measures, he said, would include setting up genuine non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to counter groups set up as fronts for the government.
Some reformists said they feared it was too late.
''One of the blunders of the reformist Islamic Mosharekat ('Participation') Front was to neglect the formation of non-governmental institutes in the past seven years and to raise the expectations of people to levels that could not be fulfilled in the short term,'' said Esa Saharkhiz, one of the disqualified candidates.
Modarresi, however, said conservatives also faced major tests, especially from younger Iranians.
''By sheer propaganda one can win the votes but in the long term, the conservatives will continue to confront the same cultural, economic and political problems,'' he said.
''The future will show that the conservatives were not the final winners, especially as they are culturally reactionary and lack the vision to tackle the young generation's demands,'' including freedom of expression, he added.
For their part, the triumphant conservatives may have come to a similar conclusion.
''We believe cultural campaigns and Hejab , the Islamic code of dress, will not be imposed by force,'' said Hamid Reza Terraghi, 47, chief editor of SHOMA weekly, the mouthpiece of the Islamic Coalition Party, which enjoys very close ties to Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei.
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