There are two main reasons behind the significance of Iran’s presidential election on Friday. One is the obvious one of who will become president at a time when Iran is undergoing tough international scrutiny for its nuclear program and the country’s largely young population is becoming increasingly restless. The other more important reason is that voter turn-out will show the extent of the unpopularity of the regime.
The build up to the election has been most interesting. The opposition satellite T.V and radio programs, oppositions leaders outside and inside Iran, have been calling for a boycott. Many are either too apathetic or angry with the regime to vote. The optimism with which more than 70% of Iranians voted for Khatami has been replaced by disillusionment as his second term fizzles out without having achieved most of his promises. The Guardian Council’s whole-sale rejection of many able candidates has fueled the anger of a young electorate who is frustrated with the socially suffocating and economically crippling policies of the regime.
Since Iran’s victory over Bahrain in a soccer world cup qualifier, here last week, there has been a feeling of excitement in the air. That night after the match every major avenue and highway in the capital was packed with people celebrating. Traffic stopped for several hours. What gave the evening a political tone is the way the theocratic regime controls merry making. Western music, female singing and mixed gender dancing are forbidden in Iran. So a simple victory celebration that would seem apolitical in Madrid or Rio takes on the form of popular protest here. That evening the celebrating masses realized that their numbers were too big and their mood too confident for the authorities to dare raise a finger.
Ever since that victory it is as though the youth has seen its own power and is bubbly about its potential. This last week has seen an unusual number of demonstrations and even bombings by opposition groups in Ahvaz and Tehran. Every night there has been unrest in the streets of Amir Abad around Tehran University. Women held their own demonstrations which led to many arrests.
The presidential race itself has also helped build the confidence of the young electorate. They see themselves as an important constituency. The candidates are all trying to attract the large block of young voters. The front-runners, former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, former higher education minister Mostafa Moin and former head of security forces, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, are running American-style campaigns promising change and openness and blatantly trying to paint a youth-friendly image of themselves.
Hashemi, who has dropped Rafsanjani from his name, is courting the very Westernized youth that he called “soosools” (dandies) not too long ago. His posters and stickers, seen on up-market automobiles, don his motto, “Hashemi 4 Future” in English, the language of what used to be “the Great Satan.” In fact he owes his lead largely due to the fact that he is promising a reconciliation with the U.S.
Qalibaf looks more like a Latin singer on his posters than the former chief of Security Forces. He has chucked the old army fatigue look and even wears green colored lenses to give him a softer look. He too is promising an easing of the social strictures which is perhaps the primary concern of the young.
Most people I questioned told me they would not vote. Some like my mother’s card- playing friends (all ladies in their eighties) and the grocery man around the corner and the student of Elm va Sanaat technical university, proclaimed loudly that voting in the election is a betrayal of the nation. Others avoid the election because they believe that it won’t make a difference who comes to power. The power of the president is limited by the constitution, it is the non-elected bodies such as the Guardian Council and the Supreme Leader himself who wield real power.
Those few who claimed they would vote like my babysitter, who is a fourth year student of English at the University, and is afraid that if she does not vote (they stamp your birth certificate each time you vote) she will not be able to register next term (a threat made every time there are elections), said that she would vote for Hashemi because unlike the other candidates his pockets are already full and he is powerful enough to make changes. Iranians seem to prefer a powerful candidate to one who is ideologically pleasing.
The difference between the top candidates is not important. Whether or not Hashemi wins, as most polls predict he will, there is a movement towards openness and ease of social strictures that is a response to the growing needs of a young population. It is also better for business. The Mullahs ruling Iran are mostly baazari pragmatist who realize that giving a little social freedom goes a long way in appeasing a youthful nation and a self-righteous international community. However, they will never relinquish political power because they know that, as hated as they are, it would be their death knell.
Friday Iranians will show by their numbers whether they want regime change or not. The election is more a referendum on the legitimacy of the government and the constitution than anything else.