DAMAVAND, IRAN // Only a year ago, the residents of Damavand and Karaj voted for pro-Ahmadinejad representatives in parliamentary elections, but just days before the presidential vote on Friday, many are leaning away from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and backing his key rival, Mir Hossein Mousavi.
Damavand city, the centre of the largely agricultural Damavand constituency, lies 50 kilometres to the north-east of Tehran along a major road linking the capital to the Caspian area in the north. The constituency is an amalgam of several small roadside cities, towns and villages with a total population of about 100,000. Mostafa Hasani, 20, from Damavand, wearing a tricolour Iranian flag ribbon around his wrist and an Ahmadinejad poster on his shoulder bag, said that although he personally found Mr Ahmadinejad the man for the job, others in the city, especially the youth, had turned to Mr Mousavi.
"It's a shame. He has done so much for the country. We owe our scientific progress in recent years such as realisation of our dream of having nuclear technology to him. All that he endeavoured to accomplish may get lost if any of his rivals takes the wheel," the young shop assistant said. "He is also the only one who can fight financial corruption. That's why all corrupt politicians such as [former president Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani have lined up against him."
In a recent campaign debate with Mr Mousavi that was broadcast live on national television, Mr Ahmadinejad accused Mr Rafsanjani and his family, as well as some other prominent politicians who support Mr Mousavi, of financial corruption. Mr Rafsanjani heads the powerful Experts Assembly, which is responsible for choosing the country's supreme leader. In the 2005 presidential elections, Mr Rafsanjani faced similar charges from Ahmadinejad supporters, but had not been named by the president until the debate last Wednesday.
Mr Rafsanjani's family has said they will file charges against the president. Hasan Azizi, 28, a carpenter from Damavand who voted for Mr Rafsanjani in 2005, said he was backing Mr Mousavi because of his defence of democracy and freedom of expression as well as his plans to reverse some unsuccessful Ahmadinejad policies. "Ahmadinejad has wasted a lot of government money in provinces without making a difference and he has alienated the international community. Mir Hossein's platform will ensure that such things won't happen again."
While Mr Ahmadinejad still enjoys considerable support in the Damavand constituency, his popularity is waning. "This time I am not so sure about voting for him," said Reza, a 45-year-old apple farmer from a farming village 20 kilometres from the centre of Damavand province. "The government's wrong economic policies have driven us to despair out here. With all the fruit imports that the government has authorised, we no longer find a market for our apples and life has become very difficult because of inflation." Reza did not want his full name, or the name of his village mentioned.
In his speeches and campaign film, Mr Mousavi has repeatedly criticised the government policy of reducing tariffs on agricultural imports such as fruit, refined sugar, rice and even garlic, all of which has put Iranian farmers at a disadvantage against their foreign rivals. According to Iranian customs figures, imports of fruit, dried fruit and nuts have increased by 519 per cent during the four years of Mr Ahmadinejad's presidency compared with the previous four years.
"We need someone to fight for the national economy rather than allowing foreign products to flood Iranian markets. We are not able to compete with cheap Chinese agricultural products because the cost of labour is so high here. If things continue in the same way nothing will remain of our agriculture," said Gholamreza Ahmadi, an apple farmer in Damavand. "The government has given farmers low-interest loans and loans to build houses but with business going so badly and the ever-increasing costs of agricultural production, it will not be easy to pay the loans back."
Voters' concerns in Karaj, an industrial city, may be of a different nature but even there some Ahmadinejad supporters seem to be wavering in their decision to vote for him again, with the young largely in favour of Mr Mousavi. The city, 50 kilometres to the west of Tehran and largely seen as an extension of the metropolis, has a population of about 1.4 million, and in 2005, Mr Ahmadinejad took an overwhelming majority of the vote.
Many of the residents of the city are immigrants from other provinces who came in search of jobs in the construction or industrial sectors, but with the economy in the doldrums, unemployment has become a problem. "I can't make up my mind. On the one hand I admire Ahmadinejad for so bravely exposing corrupt politicians like Rafsanjani and his clan. No one else has ever had so much courage," said Zahra Aslani, 42, a housewife and ethnic Azari from the city's largely working class Fardis district.
"On the other hand, he has not been able to deliver his promises of bringing the [oil] wealth of the country to our tables. My husband hasn't been paid in months. If he gets laid off there is nothing that can help us." Mr Mousavi received a warm welcome from Karaj residents on Saturday when about 40,000 turned out to hear him speak. Without any independent election polls, news agencies loyal to Mr Ahmadinejad or the reformist candidates have published contrary news about public opinion.
According to the pro-Ahmadinejad Fars News Agency, Mr Ahmadinejad's popularity surged by 12 per cent in larger cities after he revealed the names of allegedly corrupt politicians in last Wednesday's debate. The pro-reformist Iranian Labor News Agency, however, has reported that Mr Mousavi is favoured by 65 per cent of respondents, compared with 27.5 per cent preferring Mr Ahmadinejad, in a poll conducted by an unnamed polling institute commissioned by the state.