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Iranians Go to the Polls to Elect a Next President

June 23, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


LINDSEY HILSUM: The Festival of Fatima, an occasion for the devout to demonstrate their faith. She was the daughter of the prophet, and they mourn her still. While others push for Iran to become more secular, the most religious Iranians resent what they see as the creeping poison of western ways. They’ve found their champion in Mahmud Ahmadinejad, the presidential candidate who confounded all predictions by getting nearly six million votes and a place in the deciding round of the election on Friday.

As mayor of Tehran, he’s suggested that all traffic roundabouts should be turned into shrines to the martyrs killed in the eight-year-long war with Iraq. If he became president, he’d try to go back to the revolution in 1979 and make women wear the full veil, which would please those who object to bare ankles and short coats.

MAN (Translated): I feel like they’re hitting me over the head with a stick when I see something like that. I feel they’re betraying me. And I’m just a simple, pious guy.

LINDSEY HILSUM: His campaign video stresses his piety and honesty. Many Iranians, it seems, like the simple style they say Mr. Ahmadinejad has demonstrated as mayor.

WOMAN (Translated): I voted for Mr. Ahmadinejad because he’s less corrupt. I will vote for him again in the second round because he’s the most decent. He’s been mayor for two years, and still he drives the same Peugeot 504, and he still lives in the same house.

LINDSEY HILSUM: The Shah Abdul Azim Shrine south of Tehran. Backed by the powerful clergy and Iran’s supreme leader, his campaign message is going out through the mosques and the networks of volunteer religious police, known as the Basij. They’re persuading — some say coercing — others to vote for him. The Basij are much feared, and if Mr. Ahmadinejad becomes president, they’ll be paid, too.

MOJTABA KHODAI (Translated): There’ll be job prospects for the Basij because of the plans that Mr. Ahmadinejad has to make use of the Basij youth, and to institutionalize the ministry. This is one of the main reasons the Basij youth are voting for him.

LINDSEY HILSUM: In Iran, poverty and piety go together. The Basij come from poor backgrounds. Mr. Ahmadinejad has a big following in South Tehran, where people’s greatest worry is unemployment. As mayor, he once went to a meeting in a dustman’s uniform as a sign of solidarity.

MAN ON STREET (Translated): I think he is one of us, from the weakest class of society. He can understand us. Our only problem in this country is economic, and I think, hopefully, he will be able to solve it.

LINDSEY HILSUM: It’s all a big threat to the man who faces Mr. Ahmadinejad in the run-off, 70-year-old Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. He’s immensely rich, and clearly underestimated the voting power of the poor.

Now he’s relying on the votes of students and others who want reform and change. Once they saw him as far too conservative, but now they see him as the only man who can save them from Mr. Ahmadinezhad, who they fear would reverse all the reforms of recent years.

EMADEDIN BAGHI (Translated): Our vote is not a vote for Hashemi Rafsanjani, it’s a vote to prevent a dangerous fascist wave erupting in the country.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Hashemi Rafsanjani has spent millions on his campaign, but Mr. Ahmadinejad has other methods.

SPOKESPERSON (Translated): This branch of conservatives with the fascist tendency, they have strong organizations. They are not into dialogue. Even they have acknowledged that the reformists are like a car going along the motorway with no brakes. But for them nothing matters but force. Their rationale is all about the rule of force, terror and prisons.

LINDSEY HILSUM: In the village, there are only old men left. The young have gone to look for work in the city. Reform, human rights, the nuclear program, it means nothing. Here they care about water, food and shelter. They believe Mr. Ahmadinejad when he says he can improve their lives. Friday’s election is the test. By ignoring the needs of the poor, those who would modernize Iran may have lost their chance.