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Iran reformists hold rally as election campaigns kick off

6,200 parliamentary candidates begin week-long run for spot in legislature, but many reformists barred from elections

Head of the reformists' coalition list of the Iranian parliamentary elections Mohammad Reza Aref (right) accompanied by his wife, Hamideh, arrive at a campaign rally in Tehran, Iran, February 18, 2016. (AP/Vahid Salemi)
Head of the reformists' coalition list of the Iranian parliamentary elections Mohammad Reza Aref (right) accompanied by his wife, Hamideh, arrive at a campaign rally in Tehran, Iran, February 18, 2016. (AP/Vahid Salemi)

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Supporters of a coalition of reformists and backers of President Hassan Rouhani held their first joint rally in Tehran as thousands of Iranian candidates on Thursday launched their election campaigns ahead of the country’s February 26 parliamentary elections.

Hundreds of demonstrators — men and women, young and old — gathered in a public hall in central Tehran, chanting “reforms will be the winner of the elections.”

When the head of the coalition list in Tehran, Mohammad Reza Aref, and his wife arrived in the hall, cheerful participants welcomed him as if he were a presidential candidate.

Aref, who served as vice president under reformist Mohammad Khatami, Iran’s president from 1997 until 2005, responded with a smile and raised a hand to the crowd.

“Viva reforms, long live Khatami,” the crowd chanted. Many at the rally held a turquoise ribbon, the official campaign color, in their hands.

Khatami, who is popular among young people and women, last week urged his supporters to vote even though the election watchdog, the Guardian Council, barred many prominent reformists from running in the election.

During the gathering, Elahe Koulaei, one of the female candidates, called the election a “second step” after the 2013 victory of Rouhani, a moderate within Iran’s political system.

Iranian women cheer as they wave flags of reformists for the parliamentary elections in a campaign rally in Tehran, Iran, Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)
Iranian women cheer as they wave flags of reformists for the parliamentary elections in a campaign rally in Tehran, Iran, February 18, 2016. (AP/Vahid Salemi)

“A wise parliament should be formed by women and men” during the coming elections, she said, in a reference to the mostly male hard-liners’ presence in the current parliament.

Aref also appealed to women, saying he will strive to “upgrade the position of women across the political system, including executive and legislative positions.”

The crowd on occasion chanted for the lifting of the ban on opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, who has been under house arrest since 2011. Mousavi’s detention came after opposition members denounced the 2009 reelection of then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as fraudulent.

State media reported Thursday that over 6,200 candidates who have been approved to run, including 586 women, began a one-week campaign for a place in the country’s 290-seat parliament.

Over 12,000 hopefuls had initially registered for the election. At Thursday’s rally, the crowd clapped loudly when the speaker mentioned reformists who were barred from running in the election.

Rouhani, too, has urged Iranians to take part in the elections even though, as he said last week, “capable” and “deserving figures” have been disqualified from running.

The exact numbers of candidates in the various camps is difficult to gauge, since they are spread out across hundreds of constituencies and many are relatively unknown politically. But many reformists are believed to have been disqualified from running during the candidate vetting process.

In the Iranian capital, Tehran, over 1,000 candidates are competing for just 30 seats.

Both reformists and conservatives have focused on improving the economic situation of the country, which is still feeling the effects of years of international sanctions. According to government statistics, inflation stands at 13 percent and the unemployment rate in Iran is 10 percent.

A Tehran-based economic and political analyst, Saeed Leilaz, said he believes both political factions have learned that the nation’s economy is the most significant field.

“The current crisis in Iran is an economic one,” he said. “Iran needs more efficient and expert parliament members.”

Reformist and moderate candidates have formed an alliance, hoping to challenge conservative lawmakers, who currently hold a majority in parliament.

The parliamentary elections will be seen as a vote on Rouhani’s moderate policies. The president and his allies received a popularity boost following the July 14 landmark nuclear deal that curbs Iran’s nuclear activities in return for the lifting of sanctions.

On the same day as parliamentary elections, voting will take place for Iran’s 88-member clerical body known as the Assembly of Experts, which will one day pick a successor to 76-year-old Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Some 161 candidates are standing for that election.

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press.

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