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A RIGHT TURN

Print edition : Jul 15, 2005 T+T-

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's landslide victory in the presidential election reflects a general drift to the right among large sections of the country's youth and is expected to stall the process of reforms.

ATUL ANEJA in Teheran

MARKED by high drama, smear campaigns, fears, hopes and despair, Iran's ninth presidential election ended up symbolising a bitter power struggle within the establishment in which a young right-wing group successfully challenged a section of the clerical old guard that played a crucial role in bringing about the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Written off before the first round of elections on June 17, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad emerged as the winner, registering a landslide victory over veteran politician and cleric Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. "The figures show that Ahmadinejad is the winner," Interior Ministry spokesman Jahanbakhsh Khanjani announced within hours of the closure of polling on June 24. The results were declared after 24.8 million votes were counted; Ahmadinejad had secured 61.7 per cent of the ballots, defying predictions of a close race. Officials said that the turnout was 26 million, or 56 per cent of the electorate; 63 per cent had turned out to vote in the inconclusive first round on June 17.

Ahmadinejad's decisive victory has stunned pro-reform groups, who fear that Iran has now been plunged into a new phase of uncertainty that would have serious domestic, regional and global repercussions. Mehdi Karroubi, who lost narrowly to him in the first round of elections, described the rise of Ahmadinejad as a shift to "totalitarianism" that could lead to "Talibanisation".

Why has Ahmadinejad's emergence caused so much controversy within and outside Iran? It is partly because of his political agenda, through which he seeks to revive some of Iran's puritan revolutionary ideals. This has raised fears in elite and intellectual circles of a possible rise of a violent militaristic culture, and of crackdowns on social freedoms such as the imposition of a stricter dress code for women. "My daughters have been speechless after Ahmadinejad's stunning showing. This is generally the sentiment in up-market north Teheran," a senior journalist who did not wish to be named told Frontline.

Besides, the former Teheran Mayor represents the rise of the Iranian right-wing, which is likely to stall the reform process initiated during the eight-year presidency of Mohammad Khatami. It is feared that Ahmadinejad's stated commitment to nuclear energy and his unfamiliarity with diplomacy as a problem-solving tool could also turn Iran dangerously isolationist.

The old guard had gained prominence on account of its role in ushering in the 1979 revolution. Ahmadinejad represents the rise of the new generation of right-wing politicians who cut their teeth during the eight years of the Iran-Iraq war.

The fourth son of a blacksmith who had seven children, Ahmadinejad has been closely associated with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), the frontline troops which grew in stature during the Iran-Iraq war. He was also an instructor for the plainclothes Basij paramilitary militia, which is in charge with enforcing strict revolutionary principles. Ahmadinejad has been a key member of the Abadgaran group of young radicals that already controls Parliament.

The former Mayor's association with the IRGC began when he joined the force in 1986, and he was involved in clandestine operations in the oil-rich Kirkuk area in Iraq and in western Iran. He was also involved in its intelligence wing and has performed other security duties.

His proximity to the Abadgaran became apparent when the group, which already dominated the Teheran Municipal Corporation, picked him as Mayor in April 2003. The Abadgaran deepened its hold on the Iranian system after its members swept the parliamentary polls in February 2004. Iran's six-member hardline Guardians Council had then barred key reformist candidates from contest - a move that analysts say benefited Abadgaran candidates greatly.

Ahmadinejad also derives his clout from his membership of the hardline Islamic Revolution Devotees' Society, which along with the Abadgaran symbolises the right-wing drift among wide sections of young Iranians.

Incidentally, Karroubi also accused the council, the IRGC and the Basij for manipulating the vote in the first round of polling. There has been an apprehension among a section of the people that election irregularities might have featured in the city of Isfahan, where Ahmadinejad received 800,000 votes out of 1.7 million cast in the first round. Both the Guardians Council and the IRGC have denied the charges of rigging.

The former Mayor's economic platform, where he has talked about land redistribution, greater state control on natural resources, and tackling unemployment on a war footing, has also appealed to Iran's urban and rural poor. During the campaign, Ahmadinejad projected his humble origins and spartan lifestyle in order to be seen as the "man of the people". With 70 per cent of Iran's 67-million population below the age of 30, he has taken pains to appeal to the impoverished youth. In a June 8 television interview, he called for the creation of a Young People's Fund in which 1 per cent of the state budget would be deposited.

In another interview, Ahmadinejad's representative took a swipe at the rise of the wealthy in post-revolution Iran, comparing them with the aristocracy comprising "a thousand families" that ruled the country during the days of the monarchy.

Apart from exposing the class and ideological faultlines, Ahmadinejad's rise caps the process of young radicals, under the umbrella of the Abadgaran, establishing control over all key government institutions, including the presidency and Parliament. By knocking out Rafsanjani, the group has also waded into powerful unelected bodies where the 70-year-old cleric has been exercising considerable influence through his supporters. Rafsanjani is the head of the Expediency Council - a powerful body that adjudicates disputes between Parliament and the Guardians Council, apart from advising the supreme leader.

Rafsanjani's powers of patronage had grown immensely after his election twice to the presidency. Apart from his family business, Rafsanjani's extended family wielded enormous influence inside the country. Analysts, in fact, saw Rafsanjani posing a serious challenge to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in the event of his winning the presidency. Since 1997, Rafsanjani has been the Deputy Chairman of the Assembly of Experts, which selects the supreme leader.

Despite all his influence, Rafsanjani, along with other candidates such as former police chief Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf and Mostafa Moin, misread the popular mood. Aware that young voters had to be wooed, they made extensive use of television commercials to win youth support. The tactic may have worked with the urban elite, but is unlikely to have appealed to the majority of the underprivileged.

For instance, a television advertisement for Qalibaf before the first round of polling showcased him as a dashing former airlines pilot. Against the backdrop of the rising sun and a catchy musical score, Qalibaf was shown piloting an Iran Airlines plane off the ground. The white plane was then shown soaring into the blue sky as the music reached a crescendo.

Just outside the Teheran University campus, an entire wall of a building bore Qalibaf's poster, showing him dressed in a trendy outfit and smiling at the street below.

Rafsanjani also campaigned aggressively, using the television as the medium. In a conversation on television with a panel of young people, Rafsanjani was asked whether people should be allowed to choose the clothes they wore - a reference to the dress code imposed on women in Iran after the revolution. "Design and colour depends on people's taste. ... There should at least be clothes, no nudity!" he joked. The turbaned cleric then also answered questions on freedom, relations between the sexes, love and death. His campaign team, in which plenty of young boys and girls were recruited, later distributed compact discs of his interview.

While Rafsanjani projected himself as a moderniser who would take the revolution forward into an era of relative freedom and prosperity, Mostafa Moin showed himself as a arch-reformist - the real inheritor of the legacy of Mohammad Khatami, who would fulfil the former President's unfinished agenda. One of his television commercials featured Saeed Hajjarian, who was known as a pioneer for reforms before he was paralysed for life in an attack by a hardliners' group in March 2000. In the advertisement, Hajjarian spoke with difficulty but went through the interview.

Even the former commander of the IRGC, Mohsen Rezai, promised in his posters a "government of love" before eventually dropping out of the race.

Rafsanjani's over-exposure to the public also went against him. "Rafsanajani has been a known factor for years, and his attempt to reinvent himself as a moderniser in step with the youth was simply not convincing," Amir Ali Nourbakhsh, a political analyst, told Frontline. In fact, his ambition to become President again might have antagonised sections of the clergy.

For instance, the religious seminary in Qom reportedly did not support Rafsanjani. Thirty-two out of 55 people at a meeting called to decide on supporting a presidential candidate voted for him, three votes short of the number necessary for an endorsement. There have been reports in the press that the lecturers in the seminary issued a statement in late May accusing Rafsanjani of disregarding existing laws during his presidency and of promoting economic development at the expense of social justice. This led to "social divisions, favouritism, poverty and corruption", the statement said. The seminarians noted that Rafsanjani "believes it is logical and legal to have social cleavages in society - even among statesmen".

The conservative Teheran Militant Clergy Association supported Rafsanjani's candidature reluctantly. The Coordination Council of Islamic Revolution Forces, with which the association is linked, chose Ali Larijani as its candidate. Even part of the trading community organised under the Bazaar and Guilds of Teheran supported Larijani.

The announcement of Ahmadinejad's victory did not trigger any immediate street celebrations. This was partly because Ayatollah Khamenei has barred any outpouring of people in the streets. In a statement he declared: "Dragging people onto the streets ... under any pretext is against the interests of the country."

It now remains to be seen how Iranians react to a drastic realignment of political forces that has brought a new generation of radical leaders to the helm.