Tehran’s main squares and streets have been crowded until the wee hours over this past week, as supporters of the upcoming election’s two leading contestants roam the streets on foot and in cars, chanting, honking their horns, waving posters.
On Tuesday night, a group of about 100 young men gathered on one side of Parkway Square, waving pictures of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and shouting slogans like, “Ahmadi, you’re my life!
You’re my future president!” Facing them — separated by a line of police and plainclothes security officials — stood a crowd of young men at least twice the size.
Dressed in green to express support for the moderate challenger Mir-Hossein Moussavi, they chanted back, “Death to this government that lies to its own people!” Scenes like these are emblematic of the country’s main political divide in the run-up to Iran’s presidential elections on June 12.
“There is a bipolarity in Iranian politics right now,” says Mohammad Atrianfar, a political analyst in Tehran.
“The change they were seeking in the U.S. is happening here, too. People are trying to unseat Ahmadinejad.”
There are also plenty of people who want the current President to stay, and Ahmadinejad has styled himself as the candidate of change itself, the anti-corruption revolutionary the Islamic Republic needs for its revival.
But while an Ahmadinejad victory would mean more of the same populist economics and antagonism toward a “hostile” U.S., a Moussavi upset could herald the revival of reformist politics in Iran.
On a recent Friday afternoon in south Tehran, an auditorium packed with some 6,000 Ahmadinejad supporters was filled with anthemic music as large video screens showed images of Iran’s nuclear energy facilities and the recently launched Omid satellite — achievements that the Ahmadinejad administration prides itself on.
Above the crowd, banners with pictures of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini and Ahmadinejad covered the walls. Finally, Ahmadinejad appeared on stage amid a throng of aides, all male, all dressed in black. The crowd burst into chants exalting the president.
Over the last four years, Ahmadinejad has cultivated an image as the leader of the downtrodden. At home, the hallmark of his presidency has been his visits to provincial towns and villages, always highlighting the plight of society’s least privileged in his speeches.
“We came to make a revolution from within the state,” the president’s aide Mehdi Kalhor tells TIME. “This was a revolution of the bare- footed.”
With oil prices reaching a peak of $160 per barrel during his presidency, Ahmadinejad’s government has collected about $280 billion in oil income over four years, as much as his predecessors did in their cumulative 16 years in office.
He has used some of that money to distribute cash handouts across Iran, to facilitate loans to lower-income families, provide housing subsidies, and raise wages and pensions for government employees.
“My parents are both retired teachers and yet they could barely sustain our household of seven,” said an enthusiastic Amin Kazemi, a 19-year-old student of software engineering, at Friday’s rally.
“Since Ahmadinejad, both their salaries have gone up and we can live with dignity.”
For years, Ahmadinejad’s government has talked about distributing “justice shares” from the profits of state-owned companies.
A few weeks before the elections, for the first time, payments were made to 5.5 million of Iran’s poorest. But the president’s critics say he has pushed Iran’s inflation rate to 25% with his “alms” policies.
“They blame us for distributing potatoes,” Ahmadinejad said from the stage. “I say you insult our people. They came to get potatoes, but what did they get to say ‘Death to America’?”
The crowd roared in approval, and the iron railing in the front row bowed as people strained to get ever closer to their president.
“The people of Iran will never accept imperialism!”
There could not be more contrast between an Ahmadinejad campaign event — the stage occupied only by men, supporters dressed in black, the air filled with sentimental music and religious chants — and a recent rally for Moussavi, with supporters covered in shades of green bouncing to uplifting pop music and women standing on stage to represent him.
At a recent Moussavi event attended by some 20,000 supporters — but not the man himself — banners carried phrases like “Government of Hope,” “Justice” and “Freedom.”
A video showcased Iran’s national icons, starting with heroes of the 1905 constitutional revolution through to the founder of the Islamic Republic, Imam Khomeini. Missing in the genealogy was Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“For the first time in four years, we have an opportunity to protest this deceptive government,” said Azar Sarikhani, 21, a student of applied mathematics.
“We will never give up on the ideals we’ve had for more than a 100 years, ideals of democracy and rule of law. Freedom is a wish that never dies!”
A series of speakers came on to throw their support behind Moussavi, including artists who complained about restrictions on the the arts under Ahmadinejad, and Moussavi’s wife, former university dean Zahra Rahnavard, expressing hope for independent universities.
Then the star of the show, former President Mohammad Khatami — who dropped out of the race to endorse Moussavi — took the stage to deafening cheers of “Greetings to Khatami!” He spoke of an Islam based on rationality and on “Iran’s powerful youth and the potential of its women.”
In his own speeches, Moussavi has talked of prohibiting the government from interfering in people’s private lives, and allowing for people to participate in the public sphere.
Ahmadinejad’s government has clamped down on NGO activity, wary of the $75 million former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice allotted for “democracy promotion” in Iran.
In many ways, this election is a continuing struggle over the definition of the country’s revolution 30 years ago, and its achievements. That remarkable event of idealism sought economic equity and justice, as well as true national independence and democracy.
Whether Iranians choose a government that promises greater freedoms and civic participation will depend on the extent to which the country’s lower classes feel the revolution’s economic promises have been fulfilled.
If they still are not satisfied, a theocratic democracy that gives one vote to every one of its 70 million citizens — Supreme Leader, manual worker or democracy activist — may see a populist government like Ahmadinejad’s rewarded at the polling booths.