Week of 6.12.09
Inside the Iranian Elections
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.
By Babak Rahimi
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!"
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.
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