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Opium of the people?

29 May 2009 20:18No Comments

The Tehran Municipality has put up white banners all over the city to encourage supporters of presidential candidates to spray slogans in specified areas. Encourages debate and keeps the streets clean. The slogan reads "Dr. Ahmadinejad -- "The love of the people". Photo/TehranBureau

By AFSHIN SALIMPOUR in Tehran | 26 May 2009

[TEHRAN BUREAU] "Does it really make a difference if I vote or not?"

"Ahmadinejad is going to win anyway, isn't he?"

"Would they even allow anyone other than Ahmadinejad to win?"

People are asking if their votes are really going to count. It's almost disbelief. Disbelief that this year's presidential election could be a real and valid one with a choice and a possibility of different outcomes.

Who can answer these questions for sure after 2005 when Mehdi Karroubi famously lay down for an afternoon nap well in the lead and woke up an hour later trailing badly in third.

Iran's Supreme Leader recently made a speech in the city of Sanandaj in Kordestan to the effect that the people should vote for a candidate that understands the pains of the people, who feels pain at the pains of the people and who lives a modest lifestyle. Many have seen this as a direct endorsement of current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The Leader also talked of what he called "exaggerated criticisms" of the current state of the nation which he discouraged as an invalid form of campaigning. I wonder how close the criticisms of Mehdi Karroubi, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mohsen Rezai have been to the edge of what the Leader was referring to as exaggeration.

The crowds packed into the student gatherings in support of the Mousavi/Khatami ticket would belie the assumption that the battle is already lost. Though the rallies in support of Ahmadinejad have also been strongly attended, it is hard to believe that the incumbent is going to win over swing voters through last-minute campaign visits and speeches. Many assume that best he can do is enliven the base which is already certain to vote for him.

Is there anything that the president could pull out of the hat in the last few weeks of campaigning which he has not already done in the last four years? I have spoken to many people in Iran's provinces who are staunch Ahmadinejad supporters due to his emphasis on regional infrastructure projects. But equally there are those who perhaps should have benefited from the president's economic policies but have seen no respite from a lack of jobs and chronic inflation.

Confidence-boosting events such as the recent packed rally at Azadi indoor sports arena seem to give the Mousavi ticket the upper hand in eye-catching shows of public support. Mousavi campaigners say that his potential take in votes rises 30 to 40% whenever he appears in a region for the first time. It would seem that simply presenting people with a convincing option is enough to wake up the rai-e khaamush (turned-off voters), which will be critical to this election. Turned-off voters, like a light switch, are turned off. But khaamush in Farsi also means silent. Turned-off like thought is turned-off.

Outside in the streets the first few campaign posters have been going up in the streets of Tehran. Also, puzzlingly, a number of plain white sheets have been hung at various points up and down Valiasr which are marked "election advertising." The idea seems to be that campaigners use those sheets to stick posters rather than stick them on walls or electricity substations only to have them peeled off later.

But the more immediate use for them has been for supporters of Mousavi and Ahmadinejad to inscribe slogans in marker pen. In the the case of Mousavi supporters, they are mainly hastily scrawled injunctions to vote for their man. One or two inscriptions in support of Ahmadinejad have been in the classical nastaliq script. The writers have clearly had the confidence and time to go back over their work to fill out the colour and to add the dripping blood effect, familiar from the carefully drawn invocations of the Shia hero Imam Hossein seen during the Ashura mourning festival and on the rear windshields of cars throughout the year.

The chosen colour of the Mousavi campaign also has a religious twist, the pure and striking green of the Imams. Green invokes the colour of wristbands given to those who make wishes at shrines. Green, the colour of the sash that gruff looking Haji-Aghas wear around their waists, perhaps on their way to the Mosque for prayers, perhaps simply to meet other old folk in the village square. This, perhaps to remind voters that Mousavi is of the prophet's bloodline -- a seyyed -- like reformist icon Mohammad Khatami, like current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Like Ayatollah Khomeini before him.

Young men parade down the streets in green cloaks, scarves and headbands -- as if returning victorious from a football match. Knowingly or unknowingly, they are re-contextualizing a colour steeped in meaning. The choice of that striking, meaningful green cannot have been a coincidence. Could one even interpret it as an open statement that religion and Iranian politics go hand-in-hand?

Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau

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