Conservatives claimed victory in local elections held throughout Iran last week. Hardliners are rejoicing over the results — not only did they win the ballots, but the turnout also suggests that reformers have lost heart. Warnings of a backlash are not without foundation, but the hardliners’ control of the power ministries means that any attempt to protest the conservative stranglehold on power could turn violent and would play into their hands.

Last month’s ballot was the second round of municipal elections held since the 1979 Islamic revolution. Official reports estimate that 218,000 candidates, including 5,000 women, contested 112,000 seats in 905 city councils and 34,205 town and village councils. Conservatives swept seats in all major cities, claiming all 15 positions on the Tehran City Council, which was dissolved late last year after political squabbling among its members. The results surprised the country’s reformers.

Since President Mohammad Khatami first took office in 1997, reformers have racked up an impressive string of victories. They took control of most city councils in the first round of local elections held in 1999, then claimed a majority in Parliament in 2000. Mr. Khatami won a second resounding presidential victory in 2001. But those poll successes did not enable the reformers to implement the policy changes their supporters had anticipated.

President Khatami has called for reform, but he also knows the constraints that he and his supporters face. All important legislation must be vetted by unelected government bodies, such as the Guardian Council, which are controlled by the conservatives. The hardliners have used their veto powers to block reforms that would weaken them and compromise their control of the security apparatus and the courts.

Mr. Khatami has responded to the obstacles with mounting frustration, but he knows that he and his supporters have a weak hand. He has walked a fine line, avoiding confrontation while remaining sensitive to the need to give reformers hope that real change will occur. He is rightly concerned that a rising number of young people will grow increasingly frustrated with the lack of change and take their protests to the streets, a move that will play into the hands of conservatives and alarm more moderate Iranians who fear chaos and instability.

The election results suggest that Mr. Khatami’s fears are not exaggerated. The main explanation for the reformers’ loss was apathy. Turnout was even lower than the most pessimistic forecasts, reaching only 39 percent nationwide — vs. 64.4 percent in the last round of municipal elections in 1999 — and plunging to 10 and 12 percent in Tehran and other major cities. The president cautioned that the vote was ringing “alarm bells” and signaled a lack of faith in the democratic process.

The conservatives are not the only problem for the reformers. Liberals themselves are divided: 18 reformist parties presented three rival lists of candidates in the recent elections, unlike in 1999 when they campaigned on a single ticket. Those divisions contribute to the perception that they are ineffectual. Moreover, the harsh “axis of evil” rhetoric that the United States has used against the government in Tehran for its support of international terrorism discredits moderates and others who are more sympathetic to the values and positions espoused by the West.

The next test of Iran’s democracy may come soon as the Parliament debates two reform bills that would increase the president’s powers and prevent the Guardian Council from vetting election candidates. The bills were sent to the legislature last fall; their broad outlines were approved and the details are being debated. Reportedly, the deliberations have hardened the positions of the two sides.

A showdown between conservatives and reformers is possible if the bills are rejected by the Guardian Council. In such a case, legislation would be sent to the Expediency Council — another conservative body that arbitrates between the Parliament and the Guardian Council — for a final decision. Given the recent election results, Iran’s conservatives must no doubt relish such a face-off. They have faith and the security forces on their side. They do not have a majority of the Iranian people behind them, but they do not seem to care.

Japan has worked for years to create a special relationship with Iran. It is unclear what influence Tokyo has in Tehran, but it should make clear that any violent suppression of peaceful protest is detrimental to the development of a good relationship. That message, coupled with pledges of support for a more liberal and tolerate government in Iran, could strengthen liberals without playing into the hands of conservatives.

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