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Iranian parliament gives new powers to elections body

TEHRAN, Iran, December 28, 1999 (AFP) - Iran's parliament passed Tuesday a new law strengthening the control of a conservative watchdog body over next February's crucial elections, in a blow to the reformist government.

The measure approved by the conservative-dominated assembly now only needs the assent of the body concerned, the Council of Guardians, which rules on whether legislation conforms with the Islamic constitution.

Apart from giving further powers to the council, which also ready decides whether individual election candidates are in line with the constitution and the basic principles of Islam, the law will mean extra work for the organisers of the polls.

The legislation requires fundamental changes to the ballot papers by dividing them into three parts, barely seven weeks before the first round of the polls on February 18.

It authorises the Council of Guardians to have at least two representatives in each polling station, and stipulates that one of these representatives must stamp every ballot paper. Failure to do so would incur a penalty of between three and six months in prison.

The legislation was presented by 36 conservative members of parliament, and Deputy Interior Minister Ali Mohagar said it was not known what was behind it.

But he stressed that the ministry had already prepared more than 42 million ballot papers, and spent 20 billion rials (2.5 million dollars at the market rate) on preparing the elections.

He expressed the hope that the Council of Guardians would in fact turn down the new law on the grounds of expense.

Pro-reform Interior Minister Abdol-Vahed Mussavi-Lari said Sunday that the government of President Mohammad Khatami was not in favour of the measures.

It opposed both the presence of the Council of Guardians in polling stations and any modification to ballot papers, he said.

"Apart from anything else, it will create costs for the government which we cannot accept," the minister added.

Reformers are hoping that the elections will end the conservative majority in the legislature.

A record 6,860 people have registered as candidates, including 504 women, for the 290 seats at stake in the new parliament, up from the current 270.

They were being told from Tuesday whether they had passed the first test, acceptance by the interior ministry's vetting commission.

But they will still have to get by the Council of Guardians, which includes six civilian legal experts and six clerics and has been accused in the past of rejecting reformist candidates wholesale.

The Council of Guardians and the interior ministry commission must publish by February 9 the list of eligible candidates.

In the 1996 parliamentary elections some 4,000 candidates were registered and 3,228 were finally allowed to stand.