Hasan Zafarian, a qualified engineer who has only been able to find a part-time job in a shoe factory, explained on Sunday why he voted for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, despite the West’s attitude towards him.
Turning 30 in two months, Zafarian has no savings or car. “But, maybe, God willing, I have someone on my side now,” he said, holding a photo of Ahmadinejad, who shot from provincial obscurity to Tehran city hall to Iran’s highest elected office in just two years.
The main reason for Ahmadinejad’s success is due to hard-working but poor people such as Zafarian. The new president won them over with a simple but profound act: He paid attention.
His campaign rarely strayed from the uncomfortable realities of poverty, unemployment and limited options squeezing millions of Iranians, apartment blocks with crumbling facades, hardscrabble villages and just-scrapping-by pay cheques.
For many, the concerns over social freedoms and human rights are distant rumbles.
“The reformists had forgotten about the poor people,” said Vahid Pourostad, a political analyst.
In Friday’s runoff election Ahmadinejad steamrolled Ayat Allah Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of Iran’s best-known statesmen and two-time president, taking more than 61% of the vote.
The lessons of Ahmadinejad’s startling rise will take weeks to fully digest, but it almost immediately rearranged sensibilities.
Vast impoverished corners of Iran suddenly felt noticed. Progressive groups fighting to protect reforms moaned they were doubly orphaned – losing both the election and a sympathetic president, Muhammad Khatami, who helped spur progress after taking office in 1997.
“People have been talking about head scarves and TV shows and music. Wonderful. But what about talking about having enough to eat or raise a family?”
“People have been talking about headscarves and TV shows and music. Wonderful,” said Hamid Nowrouzi, 30, a machinist. “But what about talking about having enough to eat or raise a family?”
Ahmadinejad’s one-word campaign catch phrase: “Dignity” resonated strongly in a country that – on paper at least – should not be in the per capita GDP neighbourhood of Bulgaria or Romania at about $7500 a year, about a fifth of the US.
Iran is the second largest Opec producer. Foreign investors are salivating for Iran’s hungry consumer market.
But the ruling theocracy controls all important business policies and contracts.
Critics say it has fostered a cozy and corruption-riddled system. The group Transparency International ranked Iran about the middle of the pack in its 2004 “corruption perception” index, ahead of India but behind Mongolia.
Official statistics say unemployment is about 16%, but some analysts place the true figure above 30%. Some reports also say up to 40% of Iranians live under the poverty line – the point where income cannot keep pace with basic needs.
Ahmadinejad spoke and listened
The 49-year-old Ahmadinejad was unnoticed before the first round of voting on 17 June. Few gave him a chance at challenging Rafsanjani, a self-proclaimed moderate who
served as president from 1989 to 1997.
But Ahmadinejad stunned them all, finishing No 2 behind a shaken Rafsanjani.
Widespread allegations said the Revolutionary Guards and other hardline factions intimidated voters and manipulated the vote to nudge Ahmadinejad into second place, but the ruling clerics who backed him confirmed the result.
Dismayed pro-reform groups rallied behind Rafsanjani. But Ahmadinejad deftly avoided salvos with liberals, who fear he can push Iran back towards the rigid codes after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. He offered only a terse and vague:
“I am against extremism.”
He counter-attacked by portraying the wealthy Rafsanjani as aloof and pampered.
Then he rolled out proposals to re-distribute government largesse to the provinces and urban poor, boost health and insurance benefits, offer zero-interest agriculture loans and raise minimum pay scales.
It is unclear how much will become reality, but theocracy can open any door if willing.
Business leaders reacted with alarm. To them, Ahmadinejad is an Islamic socialist who will eventually clamp down on private enterprise and the Tehran Stock Exchange.
Still, he did not fight back directly. He said only Iran was drifting from the values of the revolution – which sounds scary to Western-oriented Iranians, but appeals strongly to those who feel modernising Iran has left them in the dust.
In a final TV campaign pitch last Wednesday, he described the average Iranian man, making the equivalent of about $150 a month and crushed by bills and inflation hovering around 15%.
“How can such a person have dignity in front of his children and wife?” he said. “How can a family respect him if he cannot even take care of them?”