Presidential Elections in Iran

Unorthodox Ways of Appealing to Voters

Although President Ahmadinejad's economic and political performance has been disastrous for many Iranians, the fact that so many voters are likely to stay at home could see him hold on to power. From Katajun Amirpur in Teheran

Supporters campaigning for Ahmadinejad (photo: Roshy Zangeneh)
Despite Ahmadinejad's something-for-everyone approach to economic policy and Iran's healthy oil earnings, inflation and unemployment have increased during his time in office

​​Iran's reputation abroad has been badly damaged, the latent threat of war remains, the economy is crippled, and what the Iranian Minister of Culture proudly views as a great accomplishment – the banning of hundreds of books – may not be seen in quite such positive terms by the country's educated middle classes.

Even those from the lower income groups who have benefited from the money indiscriminately showered on them by Ahmadinejad's something-for-everyone approach, have become dissatisfied.

Rampant inflation has long since put paid to the original value to be had from the gift. Now, wherever one goes people are complaining – above all about prices. There is nothing new in that; inflation has always been a favourite source of dissatisfaction for Iranians.

Incompetent and erratic economic policies

Unlike his predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, who focused on freedom of expression and the rule of law, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad set out to redistribute Iran's oil wealth in such a way as to give the entire population, rather than just a few fat cats, a share of the cake.

Mohsen Rezai (photo: AP)
An unusually scathing attack: presidential candidate Mohsen Rezai accuses Ahmadinejad of economic incompetence

​​But this has not worked out, despite the fact that Ahmadinejad – and many give him credit for this – has certainly reacted to demands made upon him by individual members of the public. Take the case of the janitor from Isfahan, for example, who wrote a letter to the president to complain about not being able to afford an apartment. Not only did he get an immediate response from Ahmadinejad, he also found he had been allocated an affordable apartment.

No matter how many votes he might have gained through this sort of thing, this kind of assistance does not represent a very wise investment of the significant oil revenues, which he – unlike his predecessor – has had at his disposal.

For months, economic experts have been warning of the consequences of his imprudent and erratic economic policies. Moreover, even though no one is willing to admit it, the economic embargo has damaged Iran.

Ahmadinejad's opponents have seized upon the issue of the economy – well aware that a focus on this issue is their best chance of picking up votes. Mohsen Rezai, a conservative like Ahmadinejad, has gone as far as to accuse the president of economic incompetence.

"Ahmadinejad is damaging Iranian interests"

Moreover, because of the damage it is causing Iran, Ahmadinejad's opponents' favourite weapon in the election campaign has been the president's position on the Middle East peace process and his attitude towards the US.

Maybe this is why Ahmadinejad recently changed his tune. When asked in an interview on the US channel ABC about Iran's readiness to accept a "two-state solution" he replied that Iran would support the Palestinians in whatever decision they chose to make.

Moreover Ahmadinejad has also adopted a relatively conciliatory tone in his recent dealings with the US. He is well aware of the fact that anything else would cost him dearly in terms of voter support.

A female supporter of Mirhossein Mussawi in Teheran (photo: dpa)
Many Iranians are dissatisfied with Ahmadinejad's radical foreign polity and are calling for a more moderate, pragmatic approach, which they feel former prime minister Mirhossein Mussawi would adopt

​​His comments on Israel and the Holocaust brought a very negative reaction from many people. Many were simply stunned by his disputing of the Holocaust and by his 2006 citing of Ayatollah Khomeini's words to the effect that the "regime that is occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time" – a quotation that was translated by the news agencies as "Israel must be wiped off the map".

Even if Ahmadinejad rose in the estimation of many Palestinians as a result of his comments – as he intended – the fact that Iran has now been saddled with an anti-Semitic reputation is something that most Iranians find both embarrassing and objectionable.

In a country with a long and fruitful Jewish history it is an association that people would rather do without. Reformist presidential candidate Mehdi Karrubi seized upon this when he sharply condemned Ahmadinejad's questioning of the Holocaust.

The role of the nuclear conflict

It is quite likely that the people are not even unanimously behind Ahmadinejad on the issue of atomic power. That being said, many of the people one talks to insist – as indeed do Ahmadinejad and his challengers – that Iran has the right to peaceful use of nuclear energy and that the colonialist behaviour of the West should not be allowed to interfere with this.

Ebrahim Yazdi (photo: AP)
Ebrahim Yazdi: "one cannot say what Iranians think about the peaceful use of atomic energy because there is no freedom of expression"

​​Nevertheless, Ebrahim Yazdi, leader of Iran's semi-legal opposition party Nehzat Azadi (Freedom Movement), believes that "one cannot say what Iranians think about the peaceful use of atomic energy because there is no freedom of expression. There are, of course, those who will repeat the official line. But if one could really talk to people on the street and explain to them what all this might cost Iran, then I'm sure many would say 'thanks, but no thanks!'"

Most agree, however, that the West's concentration on the atomic question is playing into the hands of Ahmadinejad's government.

America and the other Western states tend to cite four problem areas with regard to Iran: the nuclear issue, the human rights issue, support for terrorism, and opposition to the Middle East peace process.

Opposition members like Ebrahim Yazdi or Shirin Ebadi, winner of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, believe that the Europeans have become so fixated on Iran's atomic programme that the human rights issue has all but slipped off the radar.

This is an unwise position and one that is not in the interests of the West. According to Yazdi "it overlooks the fact that if we had freedom of speech in Iran it would allow us to discuss whether or not we felt the atomic programme is in our best interests. And of course the Iranian government is obviously quite happy to see Western governments so fixated on the atomic issue. Otherwise, someone might just hit on the idea of asking about the human rights situation."

Potatoes as an election gift

Roxana Saberi (photo: AP)
Released for political gain? Roxana Saberi was sentenced to eight years in prison for spying before a court of appeal commuted the judgement to a suspended sentence

​​Ahmadinejad is well aware that the election could be a close-run thing. At best, his modest lifestyle, the fact that he is not corrupt and his ability to show himself as a man of the people may help him to retain popularity. Perhaps this is why he has taken to unorthodox methods of increasing his popularity such as giving away potatoes. Last month saw 400,000 tons of the tuber distributed to the needy.

Employees in the public sector have also benefited from Ahmadinejad's largesse. He has even managed to sell himself as a defender of human rights through his intervention in the Roxana Saberi case in an effort to win over critics of the human rights situation in Iran.

Saberi, an American journalist of Japanese-Iranian descent, was originally and sensationally sentenced to eight years imprisonment in Iran on spying charges until the president's intervention caused the judgement to be commuted to a suspended sentence.

In spite of all the negatives, Ahmadinejad may survive due to a small voter turnout. While it is certain that Ahmadinejad's supporters will turn out, there is a danger that those in favour of reform may be disheartened enough not to bother.

Limits of reform in Iran

Many feel that even a reformist president would not be able to change anything anyway because the conservative establishment would not permit it. On the other hand, "when Ahmadinejad was elected last time many people regretted not having voted. Many Iranians felt that if only they had gone along to vote he would not have been elected. So, it may be that this time they will say 'we need to go and vote'"

That at least is what the reformers, including Ebrahim Yazdi, are hoping. But after travelling through Iran in April 2009, there is not much reason to hope that they will.

Katajun Amirpur

© 2009

Katajun Amirpur is a journalist with a degree in Islamic Studies.

Translated from the German by Ron Walker.

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