Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Iran election throws spotlight on small-town politics

Financial Times:
Mahmoud Vahed, prayer leader of the bazaar in Najafabad, a bustling town in central Iran, sips carrot juice with saffron ice-cream through a straw and surveys the reformist campaign room for next week's presidential election.

The wiry 54-year-old cleric is a follower of Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, a native of Najafabad as well as Iran's most senior Shia Muslim scholar and a prominent dissident.

Mr Vahed is taking a keen interest in the election campaign, and says prospects for a competitive poll on June 17 have improved since the Guardian Council, Iran's Islamic watchdog, reversed an earlier decision to disqualify Mostafa Moein, the main reformist candidate.

"The political atmosphere is still cold, but now the different factions all have a candidate," he says. "In the past two elections [for the municipal council in 2003 and the parliament last year] people were passive. Maybe this can now improve."

Najafabad has only 200,000 residents but is known as Iran's most political town and has produced many government ministers and leading officials.

Turnout across Iran in recent elections has been far higher in smaller towns such as Najafabad than in the big cities, including Tehran. So presidential hopefuls are leaving the capital and tramping a country comfortably bigger than Iraq, Syria and Turkey combined.

But this election is the hardest to call in the 26 years of the Islamic Republic, with eight candidates battling to motivate voters disillusioned by years of political infighting between reformists and conservatives. READ MORE

Since the reformist president Mohammad Khatami was elected in a landslide victory in 1997, Iran has changed. Conservatives who control the levers of power through unelected institutions have hindered the reformist governments. The enthusiasm of Iranians for elections has waned.

"Nothing is predictable, neither the turnout nor the winner," said an editorial in Shargh, the reformist newspaper. "If this unpredictability is not the whole of democracy, it is part of it."

Najafabad, like most of Iran, has slipped politically rightward in recent years. Mohsen Pournamazian, head of the town council, is among the conservatives elected in 2003 when most voters stayed at home.

"Voting is a national and religious duty," he says, echoing the words of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader. "We expect a very high turnout in the presidential election."

But Najafabad has many followers of Ayatollah Montazeri, who in a recent interview with AFP said Iran's rulers had failed to deliver on "promises of liberty".

At the Husseiniya, or religious hall, Gholam-Hussein Maleki, a follower of Ayatollah Montazeri, thinks only about 40 per cent in Najafabad will vote, even though this has gone up since Dr Moein was qualified.

Twenty-five kilometres west of Najafabad, in Isfahan, the historic city with 1.2m eligible voters, the likely turnout seems even lower. "If God were a candidate, I'd still not vote," says a man in his 40s. "I won't be fooled again. I have five mouths to feed, so I'm busy with that."

Near the 17th-century Khaju bridge across the Zayandeh-Rud river, three women in chadors, the traditional Islamic covering, say there is little interest in the election.

"I'm a student," says the youngest, "and I don't think many students will vote."

Her mother says she won't vote either, even though her husband, a merchant in the bazaar, is backing Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, the 43- year-old former police chief running as a conservative moderniser.

Some residents say the election is already decided in favour of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the 70-year-old influential former president who has portrayed himself as best qualified to tackle Iran's problems, including western opposition to its nuclear programme.

"None of the other candidates is as credible," says Ali-Reza Yusefi, Mr Rafsanjani's campaign chief in Isfahan.

"Our task is to tell people about the realities of Iran - how the lack of foreign investment worsens unemployment, and that we must build confidence abroad over [our] peaceful nuclear programme."

But Mr Yusefi also admits informal polls putting Mr Rafsanjani as the frontrunner are only "50 to 60 per cent accurate". In Isfahan at least, Mr Rafsanjani seems to excite little enthusiasm. "It's funny - many people think Mr Rafsanjani will win, but it's hard to find anyone who says they'll vote for him, " says a government employee. ...