Monday, June 13, 2005

As Iran's Vote Nears, Even Clerics Are Hip, Or Are Trying to Be

Farnaz Fassihi, The Wall Street Journal:
Outside the campaign headquarters of presidential candidate Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a disco ball flashed the red, green and white colors of the Iranian flag. Techno music reverberated through the streets until the early hours of the morning. READ MORE

Campaign workers for Mr. Rafsanjani, the 70-year-old Islamic cleric and politician, timed the Wednesday event to take advantage of the national celebration following a soccer win that advanced the Iranian national team into the World Cup. Nearly every Iranian youth was cheering for the team, and thousands poured into the streets, where they were met by dozens of young Rafsanjani supporters clad in hip Western clothes. They were sporting "Hashemi" banners and were shimmying to the beat as they sang, "Disco Hashemi. Freedom, Democracy."

The Iranian presidential campaign, now in full swing with balloting set for June 17, has become a contest for the hearts of young Iranians. Iran is one of the youngest countries in the world; two-thirds of its people are under 30. And since the Islamic Republic grants everyone over the age of 16 the right to vote, young Iranians make up about 70% of eligible voters.

A young Iranian supports Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a front-runner in the June 17 presidential elections.

The eight men running for president all need the youth vote. Even the unelected religious Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, and the clerical regime that holds nearly all the real power in Iran have encouraged young people to participate in elections. Not only are they the majority of voters, youths historically have been a force to be reckoned with. In 1979, they deposed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, seized the American embassy and volunteered by the millions to fight an eight-year war with Iraq. Two decades later, they pushed for democracy and reform by electing the now departing President Mohammad Khatami.

Mr. Khatami's tenure -- and his shortcomings in bringing about meaningful change -- demonstrated that the real power in Iran lies in the hands of unelected clerics who have the power to approve presidential candidates and overrule legislation. The vetting process ensures that candidates are loyal to the system. But it has also made public participation in the presidential elections a crucial measure of popular support for the clerical regime. Iran's current president, Mohammad Khatami, won 75% of the vote when he ran for re-election in 2001, with promises to ease the government's grip on the daily lives of Iranians, to increase democratic participation and to improve the economy.

Because of widespread apathy and disillusionment, nobody expects such massive turnout this time. But getting at least 50% of voters to the polls is important for a government facing questions at home about its legitimacy and severe international pressures over its nuclear policies.

Yesterday, four bombs exploded in the southern city of Ahvaz and one in Tehran, killing nine and injuring more than 70 people. No one has claimed responsibility for the explosions but Iranian officials called them a terrorist act.

Four of the eight candidates this year are ultraconservatives who were once senior officers in the Revolutionary Guard, Iran's powerful security service. One is a more moderate religious leader. One is a conservative former vice president. Mr. Rafsanjani, a former president and the current front-runner according to many polls, is a conservative seen as willing to take pragmatic steps toward improving Iran's economy. Only one of the candidates, 54-year-old physician Mustafa Moin, is a reformer in the mold that current President Khatami cast for himself in previous elections.

To woo the youth vote, all the candidates are trying to jettison their stern Islamic images. Gone are the dogmatic revolutionary slogans, cries of "Death to America" and pledges to nurture a society devoted to martyrdom and the greater good of Islam. In campaign posters, they smile and wear light-colored suits. (Ties, scorned as too Western ever since the 1979 Islamic revolution, are still taboo.) The candidates mainly give their speeches at universities, not in mosques. And they pursue endorsements from intellectuals, businessmen and students -- not clerics and martyrs' families.

In a sign that even the clerical regime is smiling on youth, the police and the omnipresent plainclothes militia known as Basiji have done little to stop even obviously un-Islamic behavior. Women in scanty dress and break-dancing boys freely do their thing in this election year. Yesterday, several hundred women protested for more equal rights outside of Tehran University, the first feminist demonstration since 1979.

Mr. Moin has been touring the country -- with stops at 20 universities -- on a bright orange bus with "Iran for all Iranians" painted on it. His campaign motto, "I will build you again, my country," is a line from a famous nationalistic song by the exiled -- and banned -- singer Darius, who is now based in Los Angeles.

Another candidate, Mohammad Baqir Ghalibaf, the former chief of the national police and security forces, was notorious among young people for crackdowns on student protesters and for arresting kids celebrating soccer victories. Now, his campaign billboards show three beaming teenage boys with sprayed hair and the colors of the flag painted on their faces. "Our entire focus and energy is spent on young people. Ultimately, they control the vote," said Majid Husseini, his senior campaign adviser.

But Mr. Rafsanjani, the candidate with the farthest to go in transforming his image as an aging apparatchik, seems to be working hard at the task. He currently heads the Expediency Council, one of the most powerful of the unelected religious bodies that oversee the country. Mr. Rafsanjani was president between 1989 and 1997, a period when dissident intellectuals were murdered and government corruption was especially widespread. He has been particularly unpopular with young people in recent years.

Now, his campaign strategists say they are determined to close the gap between "young people and a candidate their grandfathers' age." Pop singers were asked to give free concerts supporting Mr. Rafsanjani and were paid to write new songs dedicated to him. Every few days, young women wearing red lipstick and tight tunics and jeans, rollerbladed down main avenues of the capital handing out bumper stickers bearing his name. Numerous "youth" campaign offices for Mr. Rafsanjani are scattered strategically in affluent neighborhoods lined with caf├ęs and shopping malls. The young volunteers sport spiky, gelled hair, blonde highlights sticking out of see-through scarves and wear T-shirts with the words "Just Work" on them, promoting Mr. Rafsanjani's promise to create jobs for young people.

His campaign enlisted Iranian director, Rasul Sadr Ameli, who is famous for his controversial movies about young people's struggle with taboo subjects such as pregnancy outside marriage and extramarital affairs, to make an hour-long documentary about Mr. Rafsanjani and the young generation. The film, which aired Saturday night, was an informal roundtable discussion, with about 20 young men and women grilling Mr. Rafsanjani about courtship, women's clothing styles, his personal wealth and his commitment to keeping his promises. Mr. Rafsanjani, smiling and joking, was ambiguous or evasive in many of his answers.

Some youths are buying it. "There is no turning back. This is Iran today and anyone who wants to rule this country must accept the young people and work with us," said Fareed Mehrabian, a 23-year-old civil engineer, holding one of Mr. Rafsanjani's posters.

But whether such enthusiasm will translate into a banner turnout remains less clear. The leading student activist group, the Office for Fostering Student Unity, has already announced it will boycott elections. And discontent is still widely echoed around the capital by ordinary people.

Even as Mr. Rafsanjani's campaign team tried to capitalize on the soccer celebrations, a 30-year-old man named Farhad flagged down passing cars and shouted, "Don't vote."

Write to Farnaz Fassihi at farnaz.fassihi@wsj.com
It is being reported that Rafsanjani is paying as much as $2oo for good looking young people to promote his campaign. Many do it but despise Rafsanjani. The need the money.