Three not so wise men

Splitting the vote? Former president Mohammad Khatami (R) and former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi (L) February 2004. AFP/Getty Images. Pictured above: former parliament speaker Mehdi Karoubi, January 2008. Photo/Reuters.

Iran’s reformists may run three candidates for president, boosting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s chances of being re-elected.

Tehran Bureau | election coverage

In 2004, around 80 reformist deputies staged a sit-in and “political fast” in Iran’s parliament when disqualified by an Islamic watchdog from parliamentary elections. Their protests brought indifference from most Iranians and mockery from their conservative opponents, as Kayhan newspaper published a long list of food items being sent in for those on the fast.

Five years later, the reformists show only limited signs of recovery. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the fundamentalists president elected in a 2005 landslide, has presided over rising inflation and unemployment. His foreign policy is less than a resounding success. And yet Ahmadinejad has a fighting chance of retaining office in the presidential election on June 12.

Part of the reason for this is the reformists’ inability, or unwillingness, to learn or apply the lessons of their defeat in 2005.

Mohammad Ali Abtahi, vice president under Mohammad Khatami, identified the core problem: “We focused our attention on elites and forgot the ordinary people who are trying to get their daily bread.”

While the fundamentalists had policies and slogans based on economic concerns, the reformists spoke of social freedoms and a “dialogue among civilizations.” The right exploited demographics: a declining birth rate since the late 1980s meant Iran’s baby-boomers, born in the early years after the 1979 revolution, were aging and more concerned with the costs of marriage and homes than with politics.

No-one ran with day-to-day issues more than Ahmadinejad, who promised oil wealth on the sofreh, the dining cloth from which poorer Iranians eat. In 2005, reformist election headquarters around Iran were invariably on university campuses, while Ahmadinejad took more humble offices, sometimes in religious halls (husseiniyah) that expressed his roots in the organic beliefs of the mass of Iranians.

In five years of office, the president has used regular trips around the country, dutifully covered by state television, to both publicize himself and to sponsor facilities and projects far away from leafy north Tehran.

The reformists call this “populism,” but they have offered little alternative. Many have never lost their sense that Ahmadinejad would never be able to run Iran if he alienated intellectuals. At a time when the reformists should have been developing new policies ­– and communicating them to the electorate – many instead hark back to the golden age of 1997-2001, when Khatami won large majorities.

And then there are the small matters of tactics and candidates. The reformists are unsure whether one, two or three candidates will stand.

It is an important issue. The system used for Iran’s presidential election sends the two best-placed candidates, even if only a whisker ahead of the others, into a second-round run-off ballot. Such a set-up almost certainly favors any political camp that can unify around one candidate.

Mehdi Karoubi, a former parliamentary speaker, has been the most decisive of a reformist trinity, insisting he will run come what may. After all, his supporters argue, in 2005 Karoubi was within 600,000 votes of beating Ahmadinejad in the first round as Karoubi pushed a simple idea of giving 50,000 tomans (around $55) monthly from oil revenues to every adult.

Second into the fray is Mohammad Khatami. His announcement in February that he was a “serious” candidate followed months of hesitation that reinforced his reputation for dithering. Khatami earlier said he would prefer to back Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a prime minister during the 1980-88 war with Iraq who has been out of the public eye since then.

But there is now word that Mousavi will before the end of the Iranian year (March 20) announce that he will, after all, stand. All three men have established campaign headquarters, and deadline for nominations is not until May 8.

Why can’t the reformists agree? Ego is an important factor. So is age. Khatami is 65, Karoubi 72 and Mousavi 68. Each sees his perhaps last chance to become president.

The more prescient reformists realize running three candidates would prove disastrous, but there is no obvious way to resolve the issue. Supporters of each argue their man will emerge as the most popular by the final weeks of the poll and that the others will then somehow melt away.

The fundamentalists are delighted. Amir Mohebian, the canny political editor of Resalat newspaper, recently welcomed the prospect of three reformist candidates. He also suggested the most formidable sole reformist would be Mousavi, whose experience from the 1980-88 war could help challenge Ahmadinejad on his chosen ground of “social justice.”

But for most of Iran’s 50 million voters, the debate in Tehran’s chattering classes over the merits of Khatami, Karoubi and Mousavi must seem a long way away.

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