x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Iran's hard-fought election

Televised presidential debates have exposed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to stinging attacks while mass demonstrations have brought Tehran to a standstill as frustrations built up over the last four years are unleashed. For some of Mir Hossein Mousavi's young supporters this is their own revolution which though it poses no challenge to the state have sparked a warning from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that the candidates' supporters should avoid clashing.

Televised presidential debates have exposed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to stinging attacks while mass demonstrations have brought Tehran to a standstill as frustrations built up over the last four years in Iran are now being unleashed. For some of Mir Hossein Mousavi's young supporters this is their own revolution which though it poses no challenge to the state has sparked a warning from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that the candidates' supporters should avoid confrontations and clashes. As Michael Theodoulou noted in The National: "The outcome of Iran's presidential elections on Friday will affect Tehran's response to US overtures to end three decades of enmity and the related issue of how it handles the tangled nuclear dispute. That makes the vote the most important in the Islamic republic's history - with ramifications for the region and the world beyond. No wonder the elections have galvanised the Iranian public, burying earlier fears of voter apathy." Even this close to election day it is very hard to predict the outcome. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty said: "When Mohammad Khatami was elected to his first term as Iran's president in 1997, the election results surprised many Iranian opinion-poll researchers. "Outsider Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's two-round presidential election victory in 2005 came as a total surprise to those who relied on Iranian opinion-poll research to follow the race. "Now, just days ahead of the country's June 12 presidential election, some Iranian opinion polls suggest a new trend developing - with incumbent President Ahmadinejad reportedly falling behind reformists. "At the same time, opinion polls conducted by Iran's state agencies say otherwise. "It's a sobering reminder of the challenges that frequently leave experts guessing up to the very last minute which way Iran's electorate will lean in key elections, including voting this week that has inspired the biggest public rallies since the toppling of the Shah and the establishment of hard-line Islamic rule three decades ago." With the election just days away, Newsweek reported: "Tehran is abuzz with political rallies, speeches and nightly debates that have kept millions of Iranians glued to their TVs. "On Monday, Moussavi's campaign office had asked his followers to show their support by marching down Vali Asr [the 12-mile-long, tree-lined avenue that bisects Tehran from north to south]. Their conservative rivals couldn't resist the opportunity to confront them, but what surprised many in the crowd is that the two sides aired their views openly and mostly peacefully - though sometimes at ear-splitting volumes. This is new for Iran. There have been few, if any, similar showdowns in the 30-year history of the Islamic Republic. The gangs of chain-wielding thugs that occasionally break up political gatherings were missing, as were the riot police that sometimes rush political protesters." The New York Times said: "The demonstrations were the largest gatherings here in more than a decade, veteran political observers said. "Iranian elections always bring a loosening of the rules on public speech and behaviour, but many say this year's election is different, in part because of the social crackdown of the past four years under Mr Ahmadinejad. " 'What's happening now is more than what should happen before an election,' said Mashalah Shamsolvaezin, a political commentator and former director of several reformist newspapers. 'This is an expression of protest and dissatisfaction by people. They are venting their frustration and feeling very powerful.' Writing for Foreign Policy, Cameron Abadi said: "the daily spectacles for Mousavi have assumed a scale that is unprecedented for the Islamic Republic, and it's precisely the novelty that fuels the participants' fervour. Occasionally, Tehran's teenagers and twentysomethings gain enough distance from their fun to witness and admire what they've produced; sometimes they're prompted to consider their place in history. As dusk settled one evening and an impromptu parade passed us on one of Tehran's main thoroughfares, Fatemeh, a student at Tehran University clad in a dark green headscarf, shook her head. 'We've never seen this before,' she said with a tremble. 'This is our revolution.' "Our revolution in contrast to their revolution - the revolution of her parents, the events of 1979. It is the sort of language, even in the context of a sanctioned election, that would seem to burst the bounds of the ambiguous 'red lines' that circumscribe public discourse in Iran. Yet few of the demonstrators feel they are tempting a crackdown, and they've not yet earned the ire of the authorities who are notorious for keeping a close watch on public demonstrations. "For now, Mousavi's de facto leadership of the demonstrators grants them a certain dispensation. Much as Ahmadinejad would like to suggest otherwise, no one who makes such repeated and ready allusions to his participation in the establishment of the Islamic Republic and to his personal acquaintance with Ayotollah Khomeini, as Mousavi does, could be seriously suspected of subterfuge. Indeed, the fact that the reformist candidate is someone so closely identified with the early years of the revolution and the 1980s war with Iraq has opened a window for young Iranians to see that period afresh." During the campaign, American-style televised presidential debates have introduced a combative style between candidates never witnessed before in an Iranian election. Last Wednesday, in the second debate the sitting president entered the fray for the first time. "During the 90-minute debate, televised live, Ahmadinejad and opponent Mir Hossein Mousavi traded frank and direct criticisms that are unheard of in Iranian politics, where clashes are usually veiled in elliptical, polite language," the Associated Press reported. "Often, Mousavi appeared confident and repeatedly kept Ahmadinejad off balance with sweeping charges about Iran's internal troubles and its shortcomings on the international stage. " 'Your method (of government) definitely leads to dictatorship,' Mousavi told Ahmadinejad, who fidgeted in his chair often through the debate and gave scornful smiles as Mousavi spoke." The Daily Telegraph described how Iranians have been captivated by the debates. "In hotel lobbies, restaurants and shops, all life grinds to a halt as the slanging matches begin. " 'We've never seen anything like it before,' says Hussein Rezai, 28, a supporter of the reformist movement. 'To see a sitting president being criticised on television over every single thing he has done is just amazing. It is great to watch.' "Yet diplomats in the capital doubt that the ruling clerics agree. Because while the candidates may be divided into reformist and hardline camps, they are all long-time stalwarts of Iran's religious establishment. Nobody can even stand for office if they oppose the authority of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini - hence the failure of Tehran's huge, educated middle class ever to produce any genuine democratic challengers. "In effect, then, the contest has opened up real cracks in a once-unified political class. 'Regime insiders are not known for wanting to reveal their dirty laundry in public,' says one foreign analyst. 'One wonders how they are going to put it all back in place after the elections. This could well damage the cohesiveness of the general Islamic family tree that runs Iran. I suspect they may be watching the televised debates and thinking "Oh dear, what we have done?" ' " As for the issues uppermost in most Iranians' minds, The New York Times said: "Iran's crippling inflation rate, unemployment, and the question of how its oil revenue is being spent are at the top of the agenda for most voters, analysts say... "During a debate on Saturday, one of Mr Ahmadinejad's rivals watched in disbelief - eyes wide, head cocked as though knocked off balance - as the president delivered a cheerful lecture about his good economic stewardship. " 'Do you think I came from the desert, and that I don't know anything about figures?' said the candidate, Mehdi Karroubi, his voice almost quivering with outrage. "Mr Karroubi went on to dispute Mr Ahmadinejad's numbers, including his claim that inflation was at 14 per cent, not the 23.6 per cent reported this week by Iran's Central Bank." Economic hardship exacts a social price. As Azadeh Moaveni reports for Time: "These days, the phrase 'marriage crisis' pops up in election debates, newspapers and blogs and is considered by government officials and ordinary Iranians alike to be one of the nation's most serious problems. It refers to the rising number of young people of marrying age who cannot afford to marry or are choosing not to tie the knot. By official estimates, there are currently 13 million to 15 million Iranians of marrying age; to keep that figure steady, Iran should be registering about 1.65 million marriages each year. The real figure is closer to half that. "Why does this matter? Because Iran's government cannot afford to further alienate the young people that comprise more than 35 per cent of its population. The young are already seething over their government's radical stance in the world and its trashing of the economy, and their anger easily expresses itself politically. As they decide how to vote in Friday's presidential election, young people [who are victims of the marriage crisis] are likely to base their decision in part on who they think will address the problem closest to their heart."

pwoodward@thenational.ae