x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Iranian election: Ahmadinejad far from certain

The president's campaign has so far been low key, but his supporters say this is because he is sure to be voted for a second term.

TEHRAN // Election posters, placards and billboards have begun to appear on the streets of Tehran and other major cities in Iran ahead of next month's presidential elections in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is seeking a second term. But while supporters of the reformist candidates, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi, have been busy handing out pamphlets and other campaign material, there has been little activity from the president's camp.

Some Ahmadinejad supporters say their candidate does not need to resort to such means to get re-elected. "Ahmadinejad is a man of the people and he doesn't need an expensive and wasteful campaign like the other candidates," said Laleh Mojtahedi, a 21-year-old student who was one of several thousand Ahmadinejad supporters at a rally in the capital last week. "We haven't had a president who has not been given a second term in office in the past 28 years and God willing Ahmadinejad is not going to be an exception, even if he doesn't spend all the money that others do on his campaign."

The president's opponents, however, accuse Mr Ahmadinejad of wasting government money on his famous provincial tours that were intended to please voters there. Mr Ahmadinejad is also being challenged on his handling of the economy and his combative foreign and nuclear policies. Mohsen Rezai, Mr Ahmadinejad's only conservative rival and the one who seems to have the least chance among the four candidates to win the June 12 election, has claimed Mr Ahmadinejad's economic and foreign policies have pushed the country "to the brink of a precipice".

But Ms Mojtahedi, the student, like many other Ahmadinejad supporters, believes the incumbent's uncompromising stance on the nuclear issue more than compensates for such economic difficulties as high inflation. "Ahmadinejad is the only one who can stand up to the West and can ensure the realisation of our irrevocable right to nuclear technology. He had more important things to do in his first term, like reversing the pacifistic policies of the previous government regarding the nuclear issue.

"He can and will improve the economy once the heat of the fight is over." During a televised address to the nation on a state-run channel on Monday, Mr Ahmadinejad renewed his pledge to stand up to western powers and defended the economic performance of his government. Although he has not yet offered any new plans to bring down inflation and unemployment, a matter of great importance to many voters, he has vowed to issue government bonds for investment in the national oil industry.

Similar promises had been made by the reformist candidate Mehdi Karrubi, leader of the National Confidence Party (Etemad Melli), who said he would remove the government's hands from the country's oil revenues and see to it that the huge oil industry is run as a company in which every citizen older than 18 has a share. In 2005, Mr Ahmadinejad, while campaigning for the presidential elections, promised to bring the benefits of the country's oil revenues to the people.

Some voters, disillusioned with promises of getting their share of oil revenues, are reluctant to believe new promises and are considering other issues when assessing who to support for the presidency. "What I personally care about is what affects me the most: the inflation that has doubled during Ahmadinejad's presidency. He didn't have anything to say about that," Nader Shariati, a 48-year-old civil servant, said after watching Mr Ahmadinejad's televised address.

"When I voted for Ahmadinejad four years ago I believed he could do wonders to improve the quality of our lives. This time I will cast my vote for someone who has better and more defined economic plans for the future and a moderate foreign policy that will reduce the international pressure on us." For other voters, human rights, observance of the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, improvement of conditions for women and social freedoms are as important as solving economic problems or a change towards a more moderate foreign policy.

"Candidates are making a lot of promises about women and I am waiting to hear their detailed plans before deciding who to vote for," said Samaneh Jahromi, 28, a doctoral student at Tehran Azad University. "We still don't have women in ministerial and most other top positions. We need change and we need it now". Some voters, such as Hamid Rayhani, 27, a cab driver who sympathises with the reformist side, are still reluctant to vote.

"Why should I vote when I know Ahmadinejad will be helped to office again by powers like the Guardian Council who want a president of their own kind," he said. "But if I do change my mind, I think I'll vote for Mousavi. He is moderate and his defence of social freedoms appeals to me." Others, such as Hamid Abdollahi, a 50-year-old technician from a working class district in southern Tehran, are determined to use their right to vote.

"I will definitely vote because I consider indifference to deciding our future very dangerous." Mr Abdollahi, who said he voted for Mr Ahmadinejad in the runoff elections in 2005 against Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, supports the president's strong stance on the nuclear issue but thinks he has not succeeded in realising his economic promises. "He has to be replaced with someone more efficient in dealing with the economy. I still have time to decide but from what I hear about the candidates' plans I think my vote will go to Mousavi."

Prediction of the outcome of the elections is difficult as there are no independent polls. But some news sources, such as the conservative Alef news portal, have disclosed the results of some polls conducted by the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (the state broadcasting organisation) and intelligence bodies. A comparison of the results of several of these polls in the past two months demonstrates a slow but steady rise in Mr Mousavi's popularity, especially in urban areas. According to the results of the latest poll conducted by an unnamed state body that was disclosed by Alef news portal this week, Mr Ahmadinejad and Mr Mousavi are now shoulder-to-shoulder in Tehran while Mr Ahmadinejad is still leading in other cities and is a considerable distance ahead of Mr Mousavi. Some analysts and politicians place little trust in the results of polls and prefer to base any prediction on their personal observations.

"Polls are not a very reliable tool to predict the outcome of the elections in countries like Iran where people do not feel very safe about expressing their political opinion," said Mohsen Safaie Farahani, a member of the central council of reformist Islamic Iranian Participation Front (also known as Mosharekat Party) and a former deputy economic minister. "But from what I gather from my trips to various cities and talks I have had with people of many different walks of life I can conclude that none of the candidates is in a position to win the elections in the first round and there will be a runoff."

Observers say the turnout rate in this year's elections may be higher than in the 2005 elections in which 62 per cent of voters participated and which Mr Ahmadinejad won with 63 per cent of the vote. More than 46 million Iranians are eligible to vote this year. The highest participation in Iran's presidential elections (79.9 per cent) was in the elections of 1997, which brought the reformist Mohammed Khatami to power with 69 per cent of the vote.

He was given a second term in 2001 with 77 per cent of the vote. Some politicians and analysts say a large turnout will guarantee reformists a victory. "One can predict that there will be no need for a runoff if Ahmadinejad's popularity continues to remain the same and Mousavi's popularity increases with the same speed as it is at the moment. In that case, Mousavi may win in the first round," said Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, a prominent reformist journalist and political analyst.

Mr Ahmadinejad or any other candidate will need to attract more than 50 per cent of the vote to win the elections in the first round. Mr Mousavi and Mr Karrubi have agreed to back whichever one of them goes into a runoff round against Mr Ahmadinejad. The agreement will make it more difficult for Mr Ahmadinejad to win the election as the reformist vote would not be split as in the first round. Reformists who came to power in 1997 with the presidency of Mr Khatami have gradually lost ground to Principlists (hardliners and conservatives) since city and village council elections of 2002.

In this year's election, new campaign methods - such as the use of the internet, Facebook and mobile phones - have emerged, as well as employing colours for symbolism. Yashar Abirinejad is one of many young Facebook users who are supporting Mr Mousavi through the social networking site. Mr Abirinejad and his friends post links to Mousavi videos, posters and rally announcements on their pages to provide more awareness.

The site was blocked on Saturday without any official explanation, presumably by the order of a special committee in charge of controlling web access that included government representatives. The ban lasted only three days and the site was unblocked, again with no official explanation, on Tuesday after Mr Ahmadinejad, questioned by a reporter at a press conference a day earlier about his role in blocking the site, denied he had been behind the decision.

"I am not on Facebook but I receive quite a few text messages and e-mails in support of various candidates every day and I read the election-orientated blogs," said Anahita Ashrafi, 41, a teacher. "Like candidates' television and radio campaign addresses, they help enliven the election scene and help me to know the candidates better." All presidential election candidates are allowed equal radio and television campaign time on state broadcasters.

The four candidates have already delivered their first addresses, and more programmes, including campaign documentary films and debates between candidates, are scheduled in the days before the vote. The success of colours to denote candidates is hard not to notice. Green ribbons tied to car antennas or worn on clothes and green profile photos on Facebook have become a familiar site in recent days in support of Mr Mousavi. Mr Karrubi's supporters have begun to use white as their symbolic colour, but it is not as prominent as Mr Mousavi's green.

Mr Ahmadinejad's campaign, too, has caught on to the trend and will use the tricolour Iranian flag (green, white and red) as its symbol, according to Mojtaba Samareh Hashemi, the president's top adviser and campaign manager. "Having a colour to symbolise who we support is a good way to show how strong we are," Nasim Tabatabai, a 23-year-old student, said at a rally of Mousavi supporters at Tehran's Azadi Stadium on Saturday.

Ms Tabatabai was one of nearly 25,000 people who attended the rally to mark the 12th anniversary of Mr Khatami's victory in the presidential elections and to demonstrate their support for Mr Mousavi. Many of them were wearing green scarves, headbands, wrist bands or ribbons on their chest or carried green balloons or flags. They sang patriotic songs and cheered when Mr Khatami and others, including Zahra Rahnavard, Mr Mousavi's wife, made their speeches.

Mr Khatami, who withdrew his candidacy in March after Mr Mousavi nominated himself, has given his full support to Mr Mousavi. Some Mousavi supporters, such as 30-year-old Reza Khoshnevis, who attended the rally on Saturday, say Mr Khatami's support for Mr Mousavi is not their main reason for backing the former premier. "My vote is not of a sentimental nature," said Mr Khoshnevis, who runs a sport shop in a middle-class neighbourhood in western Tehran.

"I support Mousavi because of his successful record in running the government while we were at war with Iraq [1980-1988] and at a time that the entire world backed Saddam Hussein against us." msinaiee@thenational.ae