Iran goes to polls

As I am writing this, the streets of Tehran are in full swing until eight in the morning, the beginning of the elections. Crowds of people are surging along the longest street of the world, the 30 kms long Vali Asr Avenue from the rich northern quarters to the bazaar in the south, mostly young people – 70% of Iran’s population is under 30 –, traffic has stopped, music is resounding, the asphalt is covered by election posters and leaflets that already have not been distributed: “Where has the price of the oil gone?” “Bye-bye, Ahmadinejad!” It is still uncertain what the presidential elections of tomorrow will bring, the two main candidates, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mir Hossein Mousavi being both at 50% within statistical failure rate. The people of Tehran, to be on the safe side, feasts in advance, for at the much bigger feasts of tomorrow evening half of the people will have no more reason to do so.

In spite of the fact that in recent years Iran has risen to the rang of a regional power – thanks to the generous efforts of America which with enormous financial and human sacrifices has eliminated its two main rivals Iraq and Afghanistan, and through the support of Northern Iraqi Kurds brought the country on a common platform with its third man rival, Turkey – Western press has dedicated surprisingly few attention to the Iranian presidential elections. Some popular articles have been published here and there in every couple of weeks, on the unsatisfaction of the “Iranian people” – that is, people interviewed in the downtown of Tehran where the reporter got done with the obligatory fifteen lines report – on the assumption that all candidates are all the same, for all of them support the Iranian atom (the contrary would be a political suicide), that the Guardian Council has carefully filtered the candidates and thus only those politically absolutely reliable could enter the ring, and that the Council also sets very narrow limits to the power of the elected president. Therefore, Western journalists assert, the elections have no real stake. It seems as if none of them heard about Communism and as if they did not know how much difference can there be between an Andropov and a Chernenko, a Gierek and a Jaruzelski, a Grósz and a Pozsgay.

The complete broadcasting of the harsh TV debate of last Wednesday between Ahmadinejad and Moussavi (1.5 hour)

Whoever has experienced in his or her life how much political importance a somewhat bolder art exhibition, some centimeters longer hair or shorter skirt can have, will know how much it means which position the candidates occupy within the limited official playfield. Ahmadinejad, who is boasting with his plebeian origins – he is son of a blacksmith – and making a show of his plebeian manners by disregarding every protocol, since having appeared from nowhere six years ago has consciously made division and polarization the basis of his policy: internationally, between Iran and America, and within the country between Islam and its enemies. “There are no conservatives and reformers” writes his advisor Fatemeh Rajabi in the pro-government daily Ansar, “only the way of God and the way of Satan”. Moussavi, a recognized painter and architect, founder of the Tehran Academy of Art, who has won himself a lasting popularity as the highly responsible prime minister of the country between 1981 and 1989, in the terrible period of the war with Iraq, formulates his opinion more subtly. In the detailed interview given to the Spiegel he qualifies himself as a “conservative reformer” or rather a “centrist”, emphasizing the easing of tensions, the unity of the country, negotiations with America and the suspension of the catastrophic populist economic policy of the Ahmadinejad government (official inflation is 25%, but much higher in the reality). All this enters into the president’s officially permitted scope for action.

Election officials at a polling station inside a synagogue of Tehran at the parliamentary elections of 2008.

A special mention has to be made about ethnic question which in Iran – where hardly more than 50% of the population is ethnic Persian – is an especially delicate problem. In contrast to the centralizing policy of the Islamic republic, Moussavi, who himself is of Azeri origin, promises opening. It is worth to put on each other the map of Iran’s ethnic distribution (from today’s edition of Courrier International) and that of the late April election polls from the daily Jomhoriyat, where the majority of the green pro-Moussavi provinces are densely populated, developed and urbanized ethnic regions, while that of the red pro-Ahmadinejad provinces are rarely populated, semi-desert rural lands.

The subtle signs of change also include that, for the first time since 1979, the wife of a politician appears before the public. Mrs. Moussavi, Sahra Rahnavard – president of the women’s university Al-Zahra, and between 1997 and 2005 advisor of the reformer president Khatami – travels all over the country with her husband, and stands together with him on the stage – what is more, hand in hand, an unheard-of thing in Iran. This equality is an unsaid campaign promise which attracts large masses of female electors to Moussavi, as it is attested by this video of CNN below.

Another subtle sign of change is the use of internet. In Iran, where internet is extremely widespread, the government tries to keep it under control by any means. Ahmadinejad has set up a special internet commando, allegedly against “internet criminality”, whose target number one are bloggers. (The fourth most widespread language of blogs worldwide is Persian.) A special program is broadcasted on the national channel Gerdab to backbite bloggers and to present them as immoral and pro-Western. Moussavi, on the contrary, has his own site, web news, electorial YouTube page and twitter, as well as thousands of supporting pages and forums.

Nobody knows what tomorrow may bring (which is in any case only the first round). However, one thing is already sure: that these past months have brought an unsuspected and since 1979 unprecedented political fever to Iran.