By Abbas Djavadi, RFE
Iran is always good for big surprises. Over
the last four years, the international community has come to love to hate
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (sort of like former U.S. President George
But now it seems there's a real chance of Ahmadinejad becoming the first Iranian
leader since the Islamic revolution 30 years ago to be turned out of office
after just one term -- if turnout is high, that is (say more than 50 or even 60
percent), and if authorities do not resort to massive election fraud.
The poster says "if we don't won't, the situation won't change; your
As recently as a month ago, the prevailing mood in Iran was apathy. "Why vote,"
many seemed to be asking, "when it doesn't change things anyway?"
But things have changed. All three opposing candidates -- former Islamic
Revolutionary Guards Corps commander Mohsen Rezai and the two reformists, former
Prime Minister Mir Hossein Musavi and former parliament speaker Mehdi Karrubi --
have adopted positions that reject the status quo on the economy, governance,
political freedom, and foreign policy. Ahmadinejad's calls for continuity are
being shouted down from all sides.
Musavi, the strongest challenger, chose green as his campaign color. Iranian
streets are festooned with green posters, scarves, and flags. Young supporters
are wearing green wristbands and circulating political verse on
social-networking websites like Facebook: "I'm green, so green/In spring and in
Musavi has been merciless in his criticism of Ahmadinejad, blaming him for
Iran's economic decline, political repression, and factional favoritism.
For his part, Karrubi speaks openly of corruption and illegal arrests. He calls
for greater political freedom for the media, intellectuals, and ethnic
Mehdi Karrubi in Mazandaran
Rezai, described by many as a "pragmatic conservative" who could siphon away
votes from Ahmadinejad's support base, has been quiet but resolute in his
criticism of Ahmadinejad's handling of the economy and government.
For the first time ever, Iran held live televised debates between presidential
candidates, a decision that could have serious consequences. Although often tame
by Western standards, the debates openly showcased allegations against the
government that have long been suppressed.
For the first time, people on national television spoke about the embezzlement
of millions of dollars, about the killing of student protesters, about nepotism
at the highest levels of government, and much more. Just a few months ago, any
newspaper that dared to publish such things risked closure and arrests.
Among other things, the mere fact that debates were held has prompted some
skeptical Iranians to believe that change is possible after all.
Does all this mean that Ahmadinejad is on his way out? Mehrdad Mirdamadi, a
political analyst for RFE/RL's Radio Farda, estimates that the president's solid
conservative base represents about 30-35 percent of the electorate and comprises
mostly working-class voters from rural areas and small towns; another 30 percent
of voters are classified as unlikely to vote under almost any circumstances.
That leaves about 40 percent of the electorate in the category of "swimming
voters," or people who vote on the basis of issues and personalities and whose
positions shift as events unfold.
Rally in support of Mohsen Rezaei in Tehran
"The lower the turnout, the better for Ahmadinejad," Mirdamadi says. "Until the
very last minute you can't tell whether the second group will vote or who the
third group will trend toward."
Former Tehran Mayor Morteza Alviri recently told the Paris-based online
newspaper "Rooz" that he thinks no candidate will win the majority required for
outright victory in the first round on June 12. A runoff later this month is
likely between the top two candidates, and most analysts have tipped Ahmadinejad
and Musavi as the men best positioned to earn a spot in an eventual second
round. A runoff could heighten public interest and turnout could be high as a
Karrubi has created a public organization that he says is aimed at reducing the
likelihood of electoral fraud, and Musavi has endorsed it. Musavi has warned the
public and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that mobs of Ahmadinejad
activists are working to rig the election and ensure themselves a victory.
A former parliament deputy who asked not to be identified told Radio Farda,
"They can rig some 2 million to 3 million votes, but not more." With 46 million
people eligible to vote, the deputy added, "a strong turnout would make that
level of rigging useless."
There is still time for more of Iran's famous surprises, of course.
But for a long time, discussion of Iran has focused on two ideas: first, that
all the candidates are part of one political and ideological system so it
doesn't matter to the rest of the world who is elected; and, second, that
Khamenei will ultimately decide who wins and who loses.
Both assumptions are true -- and not true.
Eight years of relatively moderate rule under President Mohammad Khatami did not
-- and could not -- fundamentally change Iran's repressive theocratic system.
But the economy improved, the social climate was more tolerable, and uranium
enrichment appears to have been suspended.
Ahmadinejad supporters in Tehran
Khamenei has been pretty clear in indicating his preference for Ahmadinejad.
But voters still have an opportunity to opt for someone else, including Musavi,
who is clearly not Khamenei's choice.
If they do, it could change the political and social atmosphere in Iran -- and
the country's international position. The Islamic republic wouldn't go away; but
it would be a different place.
Abbas Djavadi is associate director of broadcasting with RFE/RL. The views
expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those
Copyright (c) 2009 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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