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Week of 6.12.09

Inside the Iranian Elections
By Babak Rahimi

Babak Rahimi is an assistant professor of Iranian and Islamic Studies at the University of California. He has been in Iran since March to cover the elections.

As I watch thousands of young Iranians energetically dance to the fast beat of techno music at a major political rally, a popular slogan can be heard from the crowd: "If [the elections are] rigged, we will raise hell in Iran!"

Iranian voters This is the new voice of Iranian politics that has taken the country by storm over the last few weeks. Swathed in the color of green that symbolizes the nationalistic theme of rebirth and the Shi'i Islamic ideal of purity, these Iranians, mostly the younger generation born after the 1979 revolution, represent the most ardent supporters of Mir-Hussain Mousavi. A reformist candidate and a major rival to the incumbent hardliner president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mousavi is seeking to bring a new era of reform to Iran.

For the most part, Mousavi's supporters have swarmed the streets of Tehran by the thousands every day and night, turning ordinary life into a party scene with their impromptu campaign songs and masquerade rallies. With a carnival-like attitude, young women call for equality while young men debate, and at times even engage in bloody scuffles with pro-Ahmadinejad supporters. "We want change and we want it now!" Reza, a 25 year-old student, tells me at one of the rallies in central Tehran. He then continues to dance to the loud sound of techno music while screaming anti-Ahmadinejad slogans.

"'We want change and we want it now!' Reza, a 25 year-old student, tells me at one of the rallies in central Tehran."
Rarely have Iranian electoral seasons so openly and bluntly witnessed such high fever on the street-level. As an academic and a keen student of Iranian political history, I am reminded of the heydays of the 1979 Iranian revolution, when thousands of men and women stormed into the streets of Tehran and other major cities. They were calling for an end to the Shah's regime, which was seen by many Iranians as the embodiment of tyranny and oppression.

On my arrival to Tehran in March, I hardly felt any public interest in the June election. Unlike the U.S., the Iranian campaign season is less then a month and with such apathy in early spring, it appeared that this election would simply be like the previous one in 2005 with low voter turnout and little enthusiasm for the candidates. But the last few weeks of campaigning have simply produced the most astonishing political ambiance in Iran's post-revolutionary history; a blunt expression for change—not any change but democratic change—on the street level.

"The last few weeks of campaigning have simply produced the most astonishing political ambiance in Iran's post-revolutionary history."
In what is shaping up to be a highly contested - yet limited - political arena, the upcoming election arrays competing factions that range from pragmatic conservatives to liberal reformists. These factions are all seeking to redistribute power, which has increasingly shifted to the militant right since the victory of Ahmadinejad in 2005. Ahmadinejad's most formidable rivals are highly critical of his reckless economic policies, which have led to higher inflation and unemployment. They see the president's combative rhetoric and populist domestic politics as undermining the prestige and national interest of Iran both at home and abroad.

In many ways, the current situation has enabled the reformist candidates to forge ahead with the bluntest and most aggressive electoral campaign in the post-revolutionary era. Mehdi Karobi, the former speaker of parliament and a relatively popular reformist figure, has emerged as the most outspoken of all candidates. Since his failed bid for office in 2005, which he believes to have been caused by electoral fraud, Karobi's thinking and discourse has become bolder and explicitly more pro-democratic. For his courage, Karobi is attracting the younger generation, ethnic minorities and women to his side.

"'Mousavi is our Obama; he wants to do what Obama did when Bush was thrown out of office: to change for the better,' a young Iranian woman says."
Mousavi, for his part, has built his campaign around the idea of "reforms by return to core principals," and has the support of diverse political figures like the former reformist president Mohammad Khatami. He is calling for more social freedoms and a strengthened civil society, rapidly building a base among the middle-class urban population and its youth. As one of the most formidable opponents of the current president, Mousavi has also publicly denounced Ahmadinejad's belligerent statements and has explicitly stated his desire to meet with President Obama.

What Mousavi's campaign has demonstrated in the last few weeks is how public opinion on the street level can be mobilized against the ruling administration. To many Iranians, his campaign represents a new era of "Hope"—similar to the Obama campaign—for drastic change in the country's authoritarian politics. "Mousavi is our Obama; he wants to do what Obama did when Bush was thrown out of office: to change for the better," a young Iranian woman says. "We want the next president to meet with Obama. With Ahmadinejad in power, we will end up in a war with America," she says. Such voices represent both anxieties and optimism of many Iranians in Tehran and other major cities ahead of the elections. They speak of a nation at the brink of a major turning point in its long struggle to achieve democracy.

It is the day before the elections and the streets of Tehran are quiet. Such calm is seen by some Iranians as a sign of an approaching storm. But to many, the storm has already come: a blunt politics of change has begun.

Viewer Comments

Commenter: marta kaye
I believe the election was rigged, just like the one 8 years ago in America. Iran was done so, to have the Chaos that has now been created. Some countries have tried to entice a conflict against Iran for years, and want an uprising, I suppose to have their puppet in charge, like in 1950.


Commenter: Rhoda Gelman
TO PBS: PLEASE CONTINUE TO TELL THE TRUTH ABOUT WHAT IS HAPPENING IN IRAN AND WITH THESE YOUNG PEOPLE AND STUDENTS. I AGREE WITH ONE OF THE COMMENTS THAT IS IS USUALLY THE 'YOUNG PEOPLE' WHO STAND OUT AND FIGHT FOR CHANGES - BUT I QUESTION 'CHANGES?'

I am reserving my thoughts and comments at this time and observing Mir-Hussain Mousavi. Is he truly an advocate for freedom and justice - we will see!! I queston President Obama with his methods and his message to Iran!!

Respectfully,
Rhoda Gelman/CA/AFA
You4You
Public/Media Relations
Portland, Oregon
rhoda4@comcast.net


Commenter: MITRA
I THING REGARDLESS OF THE RESULETS ,NATIONAL CONFIDENC AND ALSO NATIONASATISFACTION HAS BEEN LOST ,AND THE ONLY WAY EVEN THERE WAS THE RESULETS ARE RIGHT THERE SHOULD BE REELECTION FOR NATIONAL SECURITY


Commenter: Jeanne Sansbury Bell
I was so hopeful, but now so sad. The will of the people of Iran seem to have been obscured by a hierarchy fearful of change.


Commenter: Jeanne Sansbury Bell
Thoughtful, responsible citizens are participating in their government. Let us hope that there will be no fudging of actual results.


Commenter: Trace A DeMeyer
It's young people who win movements - always has been - always will be- they are our future.


Commenter: muriel
it's really exciting and encouraging to see political change coming because people are demanding it and making their demands democratically. i see either real political change happening or a brutal crackdown. in the case of the latter hopefully the people feel they have gained enough momentum and will be willing to risk some measure of personal safety to show the government that they won't take it. perhaps there is room in this scenario for outside governments to get involved, but only maybe. in any case it is deeply encouraging to see that something is happening and threatening Ahmadinejad's brutal and repressive regime. but then again it would be even more encouraging to see a loosening of the grip of the Grand Ayatollah Khamenei...


Commenter: Richard Kimani
Who is gonna mediate Iran election results now that the incumbent Pres Ahmadinejad and his rival Mousavi have both declared the winner, especially when their likely mediator the high priest Ayatolla Khamenei voted for the incumbent?


Commenter: Richard Kimani
I predict that Pres. Ahmadinejad will win the current elections. But I am encouraged by the wind of change blowing across Iran. It is unfortunate that election results do not tend to please everyone because the losers always claim election fraud and this is known to disturbilize a country. Iran, I look forward to peace!


Commenter: Sue Levitan
I wonder how things will develop now, with incumbent declared the winner...


Commenter: rabailey
i've always thought young iranians "want their mtv" :) but so much chest thumping from iran now may be positioning for later demographic changes that won't neccessarily get the kind of international attention they seek and can command at this moment...
see http://www.wilsoncenter.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=wq.essay


Commenter: Anneka Prass
I think it's very inspiring that young people in Iran are really trying to make a change in their country.


Commenter: ellie
great commentary. PBS should continue to reflect the voices of political commentaries in Iran.


Commenter: Barbara J Tuttle
I like to think that because we are moderating, so is Iran -- that the Obama influence is "catching." This will all make the world a much safer place!


Commenter: jans
Let's hope for the best in Iran and that there won't be corruption at the voting booths! Wonderful to see the youth standing up for change, more social freedoms, and hopefully, a halt to extremist views. Yay for Obama that he has inspired so many youth worldwide by the hope for a new possibility for global peace.


Commenter: jans
Let's hope for the best in Iran and that there won't be corruption at the voting booths! Wonderful to see the youth standing up for change, more social freedoms, and hopefully, a halt to extremist views. Yay for Obama that he has inspired so many youth worldwide by the hope for a new possibility of global peace.

 
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