When it comes to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, there is no grey: you either like him or you don’t. His supporters point to his strong and often very vocal anti-West, anti-Israel stance, while his opponents complain about all the negative press he has created for Iran in the West as well as his policies that have nearly destroyed Iran’s economy. Well, are you ready for four more years of Ahmadinejad? You might as well be, since indications are that in a two-man race this June he will be “elected” to run the country for another four years.
The first reason he will be elected is history. In the 30 years since the inception of the Islamic Republic of Iran, there have been five presidents prior to Ahmadinejad. No candidate has served only one term. Iran’s presidents were: Banisadr (impeached in 1981), Rajai (killed in 1981), Khamenei (1981 to 1989), Rafsanjani (1989 to 1997), and Khatami (1997 to 2005). The last three served two consecutive terms as allowed by the constitution. Those three alone account for 24 years of presidency in Iran.
The second reason is simply the economy or “it is the economy stupid!” as Bill Clinton used to say back in 1992 when he launched his first presidential campaign against Bush the Elder. Now fast forward to 2005 and the Iranian presidential election. An obscure former Mayor of Tehran, Ahmadinejad, wins a landslide victory (62%) over his well-known and powerful opponent, Hashemi Rafsanjani. The election results, which made a mockery of the pre-election polls and analysis, point to a fundamental issue at the heart of Iran’s future: that is, the average person in Iran, like any other country in the world, is tired of poverty, unemployment, inflation, corruption, and other ills.
Ahmadinejad, the man the West loves to hate, campaigned on a populist platform, blaming previous administrations for the increasing income-divide between the Tehran elite and the rural and urban poor. While he was written off by the opposition as another ‘agent’ of the regime, as a candidate, he promised to improve the lives of the poor and the lower classes by placing “oil income on people’s tables.” His campaign motto was “It is possible, and we can do it” (maa mee tavaneem). Interesting how three years later another popular candidate in the U.S., Mr. Obama, used the same slogan; “Yes We Can!”
Understandably, Ahmadinejad’s message did resonate with the average Iranian in the street. He portrays himself as a simple man -- a portrayal the public obviously bought. I remember asking a friend in Iran why he voted for him. His answer was revealing. He said the choice was between Shah va Geda (king and peasant). He said we have tried Rafsanjani (the King), let’s try the Geda (the peasant). You see, despite what many of us think here in the West, back home in Iran, people are more concerned about their economic well-being than say civil society, human rights, freedom of the press, etcetera.
Now, almost four years after his election, Ahmadinejad, while blamed for almost everything that has gone wrong with Iran, can still use the same arguments and have his supporters mobilize so as to secure his job. While he has not brought oil money to people’s tables, he has created many wealthy members in the ‘Sepaah’ and “Basij” communities. They are organized, they vote, and they have the power to get others to vote.
The third reason I predict that Ahmadinejad will be re-elected is this notion of big government and the ‘winner takes all’ attitude that have been the hallmark of each new administration in Iran since 1979. Here in America, when a new president is elected, the most change you see is a new cabinet and some high-level government figures, whereas in Iran, the new regime (everyone from ministers to governors and mayors down the line) are instantly replaced. The equivalent would be if, after Obama’s swearing-in, he went ahead and replaced all of the country’s governors, mayors, and local representatives and managers, as well as the heads of all the universities and colleges!
You can see how this practice is devastating to a country that relies on its government for everything. In fact, I will argue that whenever a new president is elected in Iran, it takes 12-18 months before all the posts are filled, refilled and the learning curve can start all over again. This phenomenon, as silly as it is, has created a new breed of power and wealth to a new segment of society. These are the people who will try as hard as they can to make sure Ahmadinejad stays in charge for another term. Their enormous power and wealth depend on it.
Does it really matter who gets “elected” in June? I think not. Simply because the biggest problem for Ahmadinejad or anyone else for that matter is that the Iranian economy, like most other oil-dependent economies, is government owned and controlled. The government is one of the biggest employers in Iran. It is involved in oil, gas, mining, construction, electricity, telecom, transportation and many other industries. In addition to the government, Iran also has these Bonyads (Charity Foundations), which by some estimates control over 30% of the economy but are neither taxed nor subject to government controls. They run everything from agriculture and hotels to soft drinks, auto-manufacturing and shipping.
In a government-owned economy the people are faced with such issues as red tape and inefficiency, corruption, subsidies, and bribery. Each problem has its own unique impact. Take corruption, for example, which is usually the result of three things: lack of transparency, lack of regulations, or too many regulations. Ironically, you’ll find all three conditions in Iran. For Ahmadinejad to succeed, he has to make a fundamental change in a system which he is neither capable nor authorized to really control. The economic mafia created within the past 20 years is now a government within the government.
So where do we go from here? I don’t know the answer. I do know, however, that more and more Iranian people will demand an improvement in their standard of living, something that the current economic system is unable to deliver. Previous administrations in Iran from Rajaii and Rafsanjani to Khatami have tried to tweak the system in various ways to optimize it, without any success. It is like automating a bad business practice: you might make it run faster, but it is still bad business.
I remember back in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan used to ask, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” Come this June, a new candidate in Iran is going to ask the voters in Iran that same question. Unfortunately, those who’ll say “no” are not the ones who actually decide the outcome of this election. Only the new, rich, and powerful breed created within the past four years can mobilize the masses to vote.
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