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Iran 2009: choosing a future
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 11 - 06 - 2009

With Iran going to the polls Friday, and at a critical time in its history, in Tehran Mustafa El-Labbad charts the political landscape and key personalities of the presidential elections in the Islamic Republic
Deciding factors
Iran's political landscape looms large in the run-up to presidential elections Friday. Political divides are not sufficient to determine the lay of the land among voters because of the relative ideological fluidity characterising the political spectrum in the Islamic Republic. The regime in Iran permits for certain margins in differences of opinion on political and economic issues, but these margins stop short of divergence from the state's core ideology. All official political movements and their leaders must ultimately be part of the established order from which they derive their legitimacy. We should bear in mind that all four candidates running in the presidential elections had to be approved by the Guardian Council, half of whose members are appointed by the supreme guide. One of the functions of this body is to screen nominees to ensure their faith in state ideology and its core principle of velayat-e faqih, or rule by the clergy. So whatever political differences exist between the candidates they do not run deep enough to challenge the core values of the state.
Thus, while voter behaviour will certainly be influenced by the candidates' platforms, other factors need to be recalled in order to draw an accurate electoral map. Perhaps the most important are the conventional distinction between social classes, regional affiliation (urban versus rural), gender, and generational divides.
To what extent class is a determinant of outcome in the polls is difficult to say. This said; there appears to be a clear majority among the middle and upper classes in Iran in favour of reformist candidate Mir Hussein Mousavi. In large measure this may be due to his record for economic and administrative efficiency during his period of service as prime minister from 1981 to 1989. This reputation weighs all the more against the backdrop of the economic failures and soaring rates of inflation of the past four years, in spite of the huge rise in oil revenues. Such developments have opened the presidential incumbent to charges of incompetence in the management of the economy and failure to deliver on his electoral promise to ensure that the country's oil revenues are turned to concrete improvements in the standards of living of the Iranian people. Even so, the Iranian poor, on the whole, remain loyal to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in part because of his personal austerity and relatively humble background, his renewed economic pledges and his ability to address the general mindset of the urban and rural poor. The majority of the technocratic and business classes will probably favour Mousavi. Nevertheless, a small minority of this sector may not turn out to the polls at all, in protest reflecting their desire to deregulate the Iranian market and to shift the basis of the public sector driven economy towards a greater role for the private sector.
The inhabitants of Iran's major cities, such as Tehran, Isfahan and Tabriz, generally tend towards reformist candidates. This voting behaviour reflects a preference for the cosmopolitan lifestyle -- cultural services (theatres, cinemas, museums and bookstores) and consumer services -- combined with conventional fears in urban society of conservative encroachment on personal freedoms, as epitomised in Iran by the religious police. It is not surprising, therefore, that Mousavi has a large urban following and that he has pledged to abolish the moral police and to introduce major projects, such as high-speed rail, in order to modernise inter-urban infrastructure. The rural populace, by contrast, regards the conservative Ahmadinejad as their natural exponent and the presidential incumbent, for his part, has taken pains over the past four years to maintain close contact with his rural constituency, undertaking frequent tours of far-flung provinces. In addition, his term has been marked by major rural infrastructure projects, such as bridges and paving rural roads. He has also ensured the direct distribution of financial aid to the needy rural poor. Conscious of Ahmadinejad's strength in the countryside, Mousavi has intensified his campaigns in the provinces in the hope of evening out the odds in the rural vote.
Contrary to the stereotypical Western view of Iranian society, Iranian women have and continue to have a significant voice in public affairs and, indeed, a woman (Masoumeh Ebtekar) served as vice-president under former president Mohamed Khatami. Naturally, the gender factor as a determinant of the elections is not so clear-cut. Many prominent women have come out in favour of Ahmadinejad. Still, the majority of the female vote is almost certain to come out in favour of the two reformists, Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi, both of whose wives (Zahra Rahnavard and Fatma Karrubi) have been campaigning vigorously alongside their husbands in an unprecedented development in Iranian presidential campaigns.
The generation gap is also certain to play a key role in voting behaviour. Most socio-political analysts in Iran suggest that the outlook of Iranian youth today conflicts with the values and fundamental premises espoused by the founding generations of the Iranian revolution. The "third generation" was born after the revolution and the foundation of the Islamic Republic over 30 years ago and has very limited or no memory of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. This generation, aged between 16 (the minimum voting age) and 30, makes up more than 45 per cent of the entire electorate of around 48 million, of which between 60 and 65 per cent, or about 30 million, is expected to turn out to the polls tomorrow. Of these, around six million youths will be eligible to vote for the first time, according to official Iranian statistics.
Iran's youth differs from older generations in several respects. It is more educated and more open to the West and the rest of the world, and is familiar with the modern communications technology that connects the world. University students, who have always played an important part in Iranian public life since the revolution, have come to form the backbone of the reformist trend. Gender and generation factors overlap among this block of voters, with females making up a majority among the youth. It was students and the young, in general, which swung the polls in favour of the reformist candidate Khatami in the 1997 and 2001 presidential elections. This same generation refrained from participating in the 2005 elections, in protest against the government's failure to deliver on its reform pledges.
Because of the age of both reform candidates today (Mousavi is 67 and Karrubi 72), and their lack of charisma compared to Khatami (who was 54 when he ran for the first time), analysts predict that a large segment of youth may also refrain from taking part in tomorrow's polls. Nevertheless, all candidates are working assiduously to draw support from this key block of votes, often drawing on the element of discontent that habitually characterises the young. And, in view of Iran's current economic straits, Mousavi and Karrubi may be able to attract a considerable anti-Ahmadinejad protest vote from the youth. Because of the size of this voting block with respect to the overall electorate, the generation gap factor will probably be the foremost determinant of the outcome of the elections, with the gender factor following a close second. Still, it remains to be seen whether Mousavi will be able to neutralise the rural vote from which Ahmadinejad draws, and how the class factor affects voter preferences in the cities, where the incumbent also has a strong base among the urban poor.
The public mood in Iran is shifting, in tandem with both political developments and larger social trends. Tomorrow's polls will give clear indication of the direction of this shift.
Who's who?
As important as domestic issues and the personalities of the candidates will be, the Iran-US relationship will determine the outcome of the Iranian elections. The victory of one of the two frontrunners -- Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Mir Hussein Mousavi -- will set the rudder for Iranian foreign policy strategy in the forthcoming phase, regardless of their respective political and ideological outlooks. Ahmadinejad winning will mean that Tehran does not yet believe the time is right for dialogue with Washington over Iran's nuclear ambitions and other regional issues. Instead, the government will seize what it believes is the opportunity to broaden its influence and strengthen its hand before sitting down at the negotiating table. A Mousavi victory will bring talks with Washington closer to hand, in the hope of cementing Iran's gains in the form of a deal that would usher in a new regional order securing Iran's greater regional status and role.
In short, polls tomorrow will reveal how Iran will approach Washington and the region in the coming months and perhaps years. Will they bring serious negotiations or more rhetorical posturing?
Iranian voters will be choosing between four contenders: presidential incumbent Ahmadinejad, former prime minister Mousavi, former parliament speaker Mehdi Karrubi, and former head of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Mohsen Rezai. Most observers have ranked the candidates as either conservative or reformist, placing Ahmadinejad and Rezai in the former camp and Mousavi and Karrubi in the latter. In fact, the labels are more of a convenience than a truth, the Iranian reformist movement having been effectively consigned to the past since the 2005 elections, at least.
Iranian presidential elections in the past have tended to pack surprises. Notably, they have been known to sweep into power relatively unknown candidates, such as Khatami in 2001 and Ahmadinejad in 2005. This year, however, the contest will take the form of a neck-to-neck race between the presidential incumbent and Mousavi, while Karrubi and Rezai trail far behind in spite of some respectable followings in the provinces.
MOHSEN REZAI: Rezai appears to be making a comeback after a long absence from the upper ranks of the Iranian regime. His nomination seems like a kind of rehabilitation of his good standing after former president Hashemi Rafsanjani ousted him as head of the Revolutionary Guards in 1988, holding him responsible for the outcome of the battles at the end of the Iran-Iraq war. If Rezai's electoral prospects are relatively slim, his candidacy nevertheless presents a two-fold challenge to Ahmadinejad. A fellow conservative with a strong standing in the Revolutionary Guards and an impressive military record, even before the revolution, he could split the conservative vote in the first round. In his television debates during the campaign, Ahmadinejad hinted that he was opposed by Sheikh Rafsanjani behind the scenes, and that Rezai had been fielded with the particular aim of detracting voters from his own support base, even though the former Revolutionary Guard chief had little prospect of making it to the second round. Rezai, 55, is originally from the oil-rich predominantly Arab province of Khuzestan. He is expected to come in fourth and last.
MEHDI KARRUBI: Sheikh Karrubi, chairman of the National Confidence Party ( Etemad-e-Melli ), has stayed on in the campaign fray in spite of appeals to him from within the reformist camp to withdraw so as not to split the reformist vote. This is the second time Karrubi has fielded himself against Ahmadinejad, having placed third in the 2005 presidential elections. Karrubi was elected twice as speaker of parliament, once from 1990 to 1992 and then again from 2000 to 2004, during the Khatami presidency. Born in 1937 in the province of Lorestan south of Tehran, he belongs to the Lurs, or Lori, a Persian tribal group that primarily inhabits southwest Iran.
Karrubi and his party have kept a cautious distance from the radical reformist movements in Iran. In the current campaign, he has billed himself as a reformist, but one committed to the principles of the revolution and the state. He is essentially aiming at the Iranian centre with a slight inclination towards the reformists, and his electoral platform reflects this. As a gathering point for the spectrum of Iranian moderate forces, his campaign has brought onboard politicians from the Khatami reformists, such as the former director of the president's office under Khatami, Mohamed Ali Abtahi, and from the Rafsanjani camp, such as former governor of Tehran Ghalam Hussein Karbastashi. In a precedent in Iranian elections, Karrubi's wife, Fatma, is also accompanying him on the campaign trail, symbolic of his intent to reach out to women voters. His campaign slogan is "Change", although not inspired by Obama but by the Quranic verse, "God will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in their souls." (13:11)
Karrubi is a blend of the eternal US presidential candidate, Ralph Nader, the splitter of the left-wing vote, and of Republican candidate John McCain, because of his age and lack of charisma. His middle-of-the-road approach has never won him a large enough following to score a major political victory, perhaps in part because of his lacklustre policy pitches. In defence of his refusal to stand down in favour of Mousavi, in spite of his low opinion poll ratings, he argued that his continued candidacy will bring more reformists to the polls and, hence, a larger vote against Ahmadinejad, which is a goal he shares with Mousavi.
MIR HUSSEIN MOUSAVI: Mousavi, 67, has mounted an intelligent, tactically astute campaign aimed primarily at ousting Ahmadinejad via the ballot box. He also has some powerful backers, notably former president Khatami who has accompanied him on the campaign trail, and former president Rafsanjani who is said to be the chief engineer behind Mousavi's return to the political limelight. On the other hand, he may have a powerful detractor in the person of the current Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei with whom he had a falling out over economic policy in the 1980s when Khamenei was president and Mousavi prime minister.
In spite of his wealthy family background -- his father was a major tea merchant -- Mousavi had advocated a public sector-driven economy whereas Khamenei, who was from much humbler roots, favoured greater private sector involvement. A major consequence of their standoff over economic policy was the abolition of the premiership in the first constitutional reform in 1989, which handed the president the powers of the prime minister. The last Iranian prime minister Mousavi may be, but his successful management of the Iranian economy during his country's eight-year long war with Iraq won him widespread popular support.
Observers agree that Mousavi came out with flying colours in his television debate against the incumbent, a first in Iranian presidential elections. He honed in on Ahmadinejad's weak points, especially his handling of the economy and his fiery foreign policy rhetoric that isolated Iran internationally. He has charged that Ahmadinejad failed to fulfil his 2005 campaign promise to "put the revenues from oil on Iranian dining tables" and he described the current president's handling of the economy as a "failure". While he, too (like all the candidates), believes in Iran's right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, he criticised Ahmadinejad's reckless way of handling the uranium enrichment question. He has vowed to improve Iran's image in the West and while he sees the new tone set by Obama as a positive opening for this, he nevertheless hopes to see action from the White House and not just words. On the Arab-Israeli conflict, he called for a public referendum among Jews, Christians and Muslims over a one-state or two-state solution to the Palestinian cause. It has been suggested that this stance is intended to pave the way for talks with the US by establishing his open-mindedness and distancing himself from the Ahmadinejad rigid hardliner approach to relations with Washington.
As with Karrubi, Mousavi's wife, Zahra Rahnavard, is also campaigning alongside her husband. As was the case with Khatami, Mousavi has a large following among women as well as artists and intellectuals. He has called for the abolition of the "religious police" who ensure, among other things, that women meet Islamic dress codes. His campaign has also been sophisticated in its use of modern communications technology. Mousavi has a page on Facebook, a website, and his staff use mobile text messaging to reach out to voters. Yet, as smooth and efficient as his campaign may be, Mousavi does not have the charisma of former president Khatami or current US President Barack Obama, who will have a decisive impact on the 10th Iranian presidential elections.
MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD: The incumbent, Ahmadinejad, embodies the political-economic alliance between the religious and military establishments. His ideological staunchness and tough talk have won him widespread popularity in the Iranian countryside, among the urban poor and among the Revolutionary Guards and Volunteer Militia, which is several millions strong. Ahmadinejad also has the support of the supreme guide. As popular as he is, the fact that he represents the major articulations of the country's political and economic powers is by far his most powerful asset. According to his opponents, at least, his supporters have had unfair access to state propaganda facilities by virtue of the fact that he is power.
At 52, the youngest of the four candidates belongs to the fundamentalist conservative wing at the far right of the Iranian political spectrum. His campaign has focussed on his personal austerity and integrity, in contrast to earlier presidents whom Ahmadinejad has accused of being corrupt. In the 2005 elections, he shocked the country by coming up from behind in the last four hours of polling as the result of the massive turnout of the Republican Guard and Volunteer Militia in his favour. Some observers estimate that the Republican Guard controls some 20 per cent of the country's economy, which, in itself, is a huge socio-economic weight. In addition to having secured the support of the supreme guide, Ahmadinejad has also forged strong connections with a large segment of the religious establishment in Iran, notably Ayatollah Mohamed Taqi Misbah Yazdi.
In his campaign, Ahmadinejad is trying to win over some segments of marginalised youth, while consolidating his bases of support among the rural and urban poor, another large voting block but not sufficient to secure him victory. If Mousavi succeeds in stimulating a large voter turnout among the youth and in rivalling Ahmadinejad in the countryside he will have garnered an even larger voting block than the incumbent, ensuring that he will at least make it to the second round if he does not win the first round hands down. If Ahmadinejad loses in these elections he will be the first president in the history of the Islamic Republic to have served only a single term.
THE BIG CHOICE: Numerous clashes in the streets recently reflect how frayed nerves are during this anxious transitional period for Iran, whose fate seems caught in the balance between further militarisation and a collision course with the West under Ahmadinejad or renewed openness to the world and an entente with the West under Mousavi. The results of the polls tomorrow will tell which way the political scales will tilt.


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