Iran's leading reformist party announced last week that it would boycott the Feb. 20 elections to choose a new parliament, charging that a panel dominated by hard-line mullahs had effectively rigged the outcome by disqualifying some 2,000 potential candidates most of them reformists. The move capped a month-long drama that climaxed with the resignation of 130 reformist parliament members in protest. After attempting to mediate a compromise, Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei came down firmly on the side of the conservatives. Calling reformists "ignorant people" who parroted "the enemies of this nation," he sternly refused to reverse the disqualifications or delay the balloting "even by one day."
Iran's conservatives are now expected to sweep back into parliament, four years after losing control of the 290-seat assembly to supporters of reformist President Mohammed Khatami. That, in turn, would set the stage for a possible conservative victory in next year's election to choose Khatami's successor.
But even before their boycott, the reformists had been bracing for a poor showing in the voting because of widespread public disillusionment over the failure of reform. After plastering his vehicle with pro-Khatami posters three years ago, Tehran taxi driver Arash Khaqani, 27, endured a beating by hard-line thugs. Now, he says, "I wouldn't support anyone's campaign so enthusiastically." In fact, he is not planning to vote at all on Feb. 20. So the reformists' boycott is, in a sense, a strategic withdrawal. "It is better to side with the people than to cling to power," Khatami's brother Reza, leader of the largest reform party, told TIME. "The next parliament will be undemocratic, but that doesn't mean democracy in Iran has failed."
Maybe so, but judging by the election fiasco, its success is a long way off.