TEHRAN, May 23 (AFP) - On May 23, 1997, a respected 53-year-old former culture minister, Mohammad Khatami, turned Iran on its head with an election triumph won on revolutionary pledges to reform the conservative 18-year-old Islamic regime.
Khatami, favored to win a second four-year term on June 8, surprised much of Iran by shooting to power with a brief campaign run on simple slogans: "Democracy and Freedom," "Change," "Civil Society" and "Independence".
Those were all phrases that could have seemed ill-chosen in a country that had just been through years of revolution, war and reconstruction, and where no one from inside the political system had attempted any radical change to the revolutionary status quo, which seemed to have been set into place.
But with his quiet yet firm tone and self-assured manner, Khatami, once a liberalizing culture minister who was also in charge of official propaganda, launched the closest Iran has seen to a western-style political campaign, with the bespectacled, bearded reformist packing in the crowds with his passionate speeches.
Iranian President Mohammad Khatami registers in Tehran 04 May 2001 to stand for re-election next month. The 57-year-old cleric, whose moves to liberalise Iran have been bitterly opposed by the conservative establishment, said he would have ideally preferred to serve the nation in some other capacity, adding that there was still a 'heavy price' to pay for democracy in Iran.
Yet Khatami, a one-time Islamist on the left, also knew to be careful not to challenge the very foundations of the Iranian regime. Instead, this son of a respected ayatollah ran on a pledge to help the Islamic government by allowing it to evolve.
In his two-week campaign, Khatami criss-crossed Iran in a double-decker bus. His chief of staff took pains to be ultra-professional, with his former colleagues at the culture ministry who had prepared for his smooth-working campaign since Khatami's resignation there in 1992.
His publicity videotape was prepared by professional film directors, and his media know-how was unquestioned.
The results were overwhelming: 20 million Iranians, in particular women and the young, voted for Khatami, giving the reformist an unambiguous 70 percent at the ballot box.
His closest runner-up was the establishment's candidate, Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri, who took 25 percent of the vote.
But despite his electoral success and continued popularity, shown in later municipal and parliamentary votes, Khatami's reformist agenda has been consistently shot down by Iran's conservatives, who control the judiciary and have jailed dozens of activists and journalists sympathetic to Khatami, and shut down 18 pro-reform newspapers.
Khatami, who publicly questioned the use of serving another term faced with such stiff opposition, has chosen a different approach this year. Apparently assured of re-election, he has opted for a less political and less impassioned campaign against his nine opponents, most of whom are conservatives.
Nateq-Nuri recently mused on the reasons for his defeat, pointing out that the "error" of his long opposition to satellite dishes cost him support with the politically important young people of Iran, where more than half the population is under age 20.
Speaking to the conservative daily Kayhan, the former parliamentary speaker acknowledged "having given the impression of not being interested in the young.
Nateq-Nuri also said he was too closely identified with the government and did not see his defeat coming.
"I wasn't expecting it. My error was being too much the candidate of the government," he said.