All up for grabs in Iran vote

Reformers up the ante in presidential poll but Ahmadinejad retains populist touch.

    Ahmadinejad faces two reformist and one conservative opponent in the presidential vote [AFP]

    Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was Iran's first non-cleric president in 24 years when he was elected in 2005.

    Now, with his rivals blaming him for many problems ranging from Iran's dwindling economy to the country's pariah status in the world, he may be the first president since 1981 whose re-election is not guaranteed.

    Iran's next presidential election, to be held on Friday, June 12, will be a milestone in Iranian politics.

    This is the first time in the Islamic Republic's history that the incumbent president has had to run against three high-profile opponents - all determined to go to war, if need be, to win.

    Iran election 2009

     The Iranian political system
     Iran vote wide open?
     Meet the candidates
     A female voter's perspective
     Mass rallies before vote
     Iranian media on elections

     In video:
     Iran's powerful charities
     High-tech campaigning
     Iran season
     Candidates court youth

    Ahmadinejad's reformist rivals are Mehdi Karroubi, the former parliament speaker who led a reformist-dominated parliament between 2000 and 2004, and Mir Hossein Mousavi, who was Iran's prime minister during the eight-year war with Iraq until a constitutional amendment abolished that post in Iran's political system.

    Both Karroubi and Mousavi accuse Ahmadinejad of mismanagement, both in foreign policy and the domestic economy.

    They have both capitalised on what they see as widespread dissatisfaction with Ahmadinejad's forays into the international scene and his disregard for the worsening financial status of the middle class.  

    On top of this, Ahmadinejad's allies have refrained from rallying behind him as one, making the president's path to re-election even tougher.

    In fact, a conservative candidate is as well running in the race for presidential office.

    Mohsen Rezai is an ex-commander-in-chief of the Revolutionary Guards - Iran's elite armed forces.

    Rezai has previously claimed - despite a presumed proximity between his and Ahmadinejad's political views - that the latter's policies "are driving the country over a precipice".

    However, Iran's reformist and conservative political factions are divided in their view of Ahmadinejad's foreign policies.

    Nuclear strategy

    While conservatives praise Ahmadinejad for his aggressive foreign policy that propelled Iran's nuclear programme beyond a negotiable halt, the reformists focus their fire on the exact same point.

    They have criticised Ahmadinejad's stance, saying such policies have brought Iran five UN Security Council sanction resolutions which have, in turn, hit the country's oil-dependent economy hard.

    Despite this, the president never misses a chance to magnify his government's achievements where he says past governments have failed.

    "The whole world is scared of America and America is scared of this man [Ahmadinejad]. I love him."

    Ahmadinejad supporter

    In his last provincial trip to his home town of Semnan, Ahmadinejad told thousands of his supporters that his government had stood up for the Iranian people's right to nuclear technology, and forced the world powers to retreat.

    He described the policies of the former reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, as cowardly.

    "The Islamic government must be the symbol of the nation's bravery... no one has the right to attribute their own weakness and cowardice on the great Iranian nation," Ahmadinejad said.

    He was greeted by people shouting the slogan: "Nuclear energy is our certain right."

    Al Jazeera accompanied Ahmadinejad on his trip to Semnan province. His ability to work a crowd and win people over is remarkable.

    A young man, who had waited in a local stadium for hours to hear the Iranian leader speak, told Al Jazeera that Ahmadinejad was the best president in the world.

    "The whole world is scared of America, and America is scared of this man. I love him," he said, before he began to chant "God is the greatest", in approval of Ahmadinejad's anti-American remarks.

    Holocaust controversy

    But some of Ahmadinejad's comments have brought him harsh criticism rather than praise.

    His infamous call to wipe Israel off the world map, and his questioning the truth about the Jewish holocaust, count among those.

    Reformists say such remarks have served Israel's interests best, enabling Tel Aviv to drive home the point that Iran is seeking confrontation with the west and fuelling anti-Iranian sentiment abroad.

    Karroubi has been vocal in his questioning of holocaust-related remarks.

    "We have heard the question about the holocaust, but we have never seen the blessings that it has brought for us," he said in a question and answer session held in Amir Kabir University in Tehran last year.

    Ahmadinejad has fired back by accusing his critics of being affiliated to the Zionist regime, the title with which Iranian officials refer to Israel.

    "I asked that question to anger the Zionists, so why are you so angry?" Ahmadinejad asked in a speech delivered to a gathering of his supporters in recent days.

    The other reformist candidate, Mousavi, said in a recent campaign speech that Ahmadinejad's call for Israel to be wiped off the map was an autonomous remark made above and beyond the Islamic Republic's official position regarding Palestine.

    Candidates Mousavi (left) and Karroubi have criticised Ahmadinejad's foreign policies [AFP]
    Iran has called for a referendum in the occupied lands, in which Palestinians from all religions would vote for a particular political system.

    Iran maintains that all orginally Palestinian people who have been displaced after the Israeli occupation must take part in such a referendum, knowing that Israel's outright rejection of that call may label it as an anti-democratic state.

    But there are other aspects to Ahmadinejad's domestic policies, which have brought him popularity among the masses.

    His supporters describe his provincial trips and the introduction of so-called "justice stocks" - which revived the Islamic Revolution's basic values of caring for the poor - as revolutionary.

    Ahmadinejad, with cabinet ministers in tow, has visited each one of Iran's 30 provinces twice during the last four years.

    He has deployed ministers to the most deprived areas to hear the demands of the people first hand. At the end of every trip, a cabinet session was held in each province with hundreds of directives issued to resolve regional problems.

    Ahmadinejad's supporters say his provincial trips have provided an unprecedented opportunity for the people to see their president up-close, thus filling the gap between the people and the ruling establishment.

    Critics, on the other hand, call the whole idea a populist stunt designed to gain votes by lavishing petro-dollars on insignificant infrastructure projects.

    Davoud Danesh Jafari, Ahmadinejad's first economy minister who was forced to resign in 2007 over differences with the president on economic policies, told Al Jazeera that the second round of provincial trips were, at the very least, a waste of time and money.

    While Danesh Jafari acknowledges the first provincial trips helped create a visible sympathy between the people and the government, he is less convinced by the second tour.

    Given more than 90 per cent of the provincial directives were approved in Tehran ahead of the trips, Danesh Jafari believes the government's physical attendance in remote areas was irrelevant.

    Wealth redistribution

    As part of the "justice stocks" move, the government distributed billions of dollars worth of stocks in state-run companies and factories among Iran's lower economic classes.

    It was meant to re-distribute the country's wealth in a fairer way.

    Danesh Jafari also disagrees with the way this has been carried out. He says that the main plan, as laid down under Article 44 of the constitution and decreed by Iran's supreme leader, had been for recepient social groups to reimburse the price of the stock in installments over 10 years.

    "The government only insists on distributing the dividend profit of the stocks," Danesh Jafari says, "But as far as reimbursement is concerned, the government has only gathered some $200 million of the planned $2 billion first installment," the former economy minister told Al Jazeera.

    "We turned our backs on the polls and we are the ones to blame for the misery we are in today"

    Kioumars Pourahmad, film maker, urges Iranians to vote

    Ahmadinejad has shown resilience in his decision making and it is unlikely he will change his policies if re-elected.

    His rivals have promised to adopt softer tones towards the west and replace what they call his autocratic approach with consultative decision making.

    However, Iran's nuclear policies are going to remain the same with or without Ahmadinejad in office, as they are determined by higher powers than the presidential office.

    The same could be said about Iran's relationship with the United States; however, Ahmadinejad has been forthcoming in that field.

    He has sent a message to George Bush, the former US president, as well as congratulated Barack Obama upon his election win and offered to take part in a live, televised debate with his American counterpart.

    And Ahmadinejad is still very popular among ordinary Iranians. Analysts say his rivals must win over the millions of eligible voters who abstained from voting four years ago to defeat the current president.

    Kioumars Pourahmad, a renowned film maker, was one of those who did not vote four years ago.

    At a rally in support of reformist Mousavi, he told participants that Ahmadinejad was a mistake, made by those who did not vote against him in 2005.

    "We turned our backs on the polls and we are the ones to blame for the misery we are in today," Pourahmad told the cheering crowd.

    "Our international reputation has been destroyed beyond recognition. We are a great nation. Lets regain the respect we deserve by voting."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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