Iranians go to the polls tomorrow to choose their next president. The list of four candidates, including incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have been busy pressing hands and rolling out the rhetoric in one of the most lively and democratic political processes in the Middle East.
Although the most powerful individual in the country is the not-so-democratically-elected Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (also known as "Supreme Leader"), the president remains influential as the most visible symbol of Iranian power to the international community. For the past four years, that symbolic position has been occupied by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the former Tehran city mayor who strode into power in August 2005 in an upset election victory over the former president, reformist Mohammad Khatami.
In that time Ahmadinejad has received wide international coverage, most notably for his skepticism about the Holocaust and his fiery anti-Israel rhetoric. At home, however, he was initially seen as a populist who promised to share the nation’s wealth — Iran is rich in natural gas and oil and sits on a key trading crossroads — more equitably, particularly amongst the working poor.
This time Ahmadinejad is the one under pressure, and not just from the reformist camp. Many Iranians — including conservatives — have been unhappy with Ahmadinejad’s recent performance as president, holding him to be personally responsible for Iran’s increased diplomatic and political isolation.
One of those unhappy conservatives is Mohsin Rezai, a former head of the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard who is also one of the candidates for president. Rezai, though, is considered a rank outsider to win the election as he has mounted a relatively quiet campaign and is largely unknown by voters.
Another candidate considered unlikely to win is the 70-something Mahdi Karrubi, a once-firebrand cleric who mellowed into a reformist. Speaker of the Iranian Parliament from 1989 to 1992 and from 2000 to 2004, he also ran for president against Ahmadinejad in 2005.
Ahmadinejad’s greatest rival for the presidency is Mir Houssein Mousavi, former Prime Minister and the main candidate of those who are generally described as the "reformists": politicians whose support is particularly strong in Tehran and among the urban elite, who are calling for greater liberalisation of the economy, and the application of Islam in the society.
The stakes in this election between Mousavi and Ahmadinejad could not be higher. In a vitriolic debate televised nationally last week, Mousavi charged the President with moving the country towards dictatorship, while Ahmadinejad accused the reformer of being corrupt and dishonest — a slur successfully employed earlier against former president Khatami when he was widely perceived to have lost the previous elections due to corruption and an inability to spread economic prosperity broadly among the population.
In different parts of Tehran this week, supporters of Ahmadinejad and Mousavi have been chanting slogans and waving placards in support of their candidates. Traditionally a centre for the country’s reformist political movements, Tehran is expected to go to Mousavi.
But Ahmadinejad, widely respected for his austere personal life, remains popular in other regions of Iran — and particularly among the poor. He has sought to bolster his chances of re-election by providing "sweeteners" to the electorate and promising to share the country’s oil wealth. The President’s campaign has been punctuated by rallies offering his supporters free food and transportation. In recent months, however, Ahmadinejad has been criticised for a series of handouts, like the distribution of free potatoes throughout the country, described by his political opponents as bids to buy votes.
By contrast, Mousavi has called for more transparency in Government business. He has openly expressed support for liberalisation of the Iranian economy, like his reformist predecessor, former president Khatami. Mousavi has also hinted at more conciliatory dialogue with the United States, a country which, since the revolution that toppled the pro-Washington Shah (or King) in January 1979, has not maintained formal diplomatic relations with Iran.
Significantly, all candidates have expressed support for Iran’s right, enshrined in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to pursue a peaceful nuclear programme.
Iranians are one of the most internet-savvy people in the world, and, with around a third of the population under the age of 25, one of the youngest too. There have been intense debates over the upcoming elections on the blogosphere. Much of that debate has examined the capacity of the candidates to improve economic and social conditions in a country where so many have grown tired with the old guard who brought the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Recognising these currents, all of the candidates except Rezai have used the internet extensively in their appeals to voters. While campaigning for Mousavi, for instance, former president Mohammad Khatami recently took part in a television show where he answered viewers’ questions over the internet. Websites in support of both Mousavi and Ahmadinejad have proliferated in recent months while all manner of discussions over the internet have remained robust.
As with any other popular electoral process, much of Iran’s domestic and international policies will be dictated by practicalities as much as by the identity of the next president. With its strategically vital location in the heart of the Middle East — with South Asia to the east and Central Asia to the north — there is much potential for growth in the Iranian economy, particularly with respect to oil and gas supplies. Despite this, the economy has stagnated — largely due to international isolation related to Iran’s nuclear programme.
Whoever Iran choses, the new president will face no shortage of challenges trying to fulfill the aspirations of his own people, as well as the hard work of courting international support both in the region and from the West.
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