Will the Principlists rally behind Ahmadinejad?

As the June 12 presidential election draws nearer, there is sudden talk of ‘unity’ in the fundamentalist camp

Middle East
Tehran Bureau | election coverage

Once Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the 2005 presidential election, it was easy to forget the fear among fundamentalists during the campaign that their divisions would bring defeat.

For even when Mohsen Rezaei, the former Revolutionary Guards commander, withdrew just two days before the poll, there were still three candidates left who saw themselves as “principle-ists” or fundamentalists.

As many feared, the vote split between them. But as many hoped, Ahmadinejad had just enough votes to beat three reformists and pass through to the run-off ballot when he trounced Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

In office, Ahmadinejad has done little to unify the fundamentalist camp, preferring outreach with ordinary Iranians through provincial tours to bridge-building in Tehran.

His choice of ministers and conduct of government business has often alienated people who should be allies. He annoyed senior clergy in Qom by failure to consult them over decisions including the admission of women to football matches.

And president Ahmadinejad has faced growing difficulty gaining support in parliament. Conservative control of both the presidency and the Majlis has brought not agreed, coherent policies but rather a roller-coaster of spending buoyed by rising oil prices and now followed by sudden retrenchment.

Indeed, next year’s budget is still stuck with deputies, along with the president’s plan to phase out costly universal subsidies, even though the new Iranian year is just days away.

Ahmadinejad is vulnerable on the economy – after all, he won in 2005 on a slogan of “putting oil money on the people’s sofreh” [the dining cloth placed on the floor by poorer Iranians]. This can certainly cost him the election, especially if his opponents move from criticising his government’s economic mismanagement to communicating to Iranians some clear alternatives.

This is partly why Ahmadinejad’s supporters were so pleased by the announcement from Mohammad Khatami, the reformist president between 1997 and 2005, that he would contest the June 12 poll.

No-one is more likely to encourage unity among fundamentalists, who believe that Khatami, however committed to the Islamic Republic, would in office undermine it through encouraging “radical” elements. The fundamentalists’ sense of danger has been suitably sharpened by the likes of Mohammad Atrianfar, former editor of Shargh newspaper and an advocate of Khatami, relishing a “full-fledged confrontation” between Khatami and Ahmadinejad.

Hence the sudden talk in the fundamentalist camp of the need for unity. Amir Mohebian, political editor of Resalat newspaper, recently argued that if Ahmadinejad could “display an appropriate element of flexibility, and his flexibility were not seen as an election [ploy], he would make a very good choice” for all fundamentalists to support.

Mohebian, as ever, shows mixed feelings about Ahmadinejad. On the one hand he recognises the “skill and acumen in understanding the political arena of elections” that brought the blacksmith’s son to office in the first place. But on the other hand, he argues that “the views [of the principle-ist candidate] must be compatible with the consensual views of the principle-ists” .

This has hardly been the case during the four years of Ahmadinejad’s presidency, but in recent weeks Ahmadinejad has launched a charm offensive with meetings with Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf, a potential challenger, with clerics in Qom and with leading members of Motalefeh, the Islamic coalition party.

Suddenly, there are whispers of realignment with the aim of establishing a government after the election with support of the whole fundamentalist camp.

It is a difficult choice for Ahmadinejad. He has the momentum of incumbency – and when push comes shove, especially if Khatami does not withdraw, fundamentalists may feel obliged to back him. But on the other hand, if a single reformist clearly emerges as a challenger, the fundamentalists may worry they could lose the election.

A key figure in this could be Ghalibaf, the 47-year-old Tehran mayor, who seemed set to offer voters a more consensual style of fundamentalism and who several months back gathered celebrities and economists in his support with a slogan of “restoring tranquility.”

It may be that Ghalibaf, at the right price, will fall in behind Ahmadinejad.

A former national police chief and wartime military commander, Ghalibaf gained 4.08m votes in the 2005 election, missing the run-off ballot by only 1.6m votes, although his slick election style, including broadcasts, alienated many fundamentalists.

As Tehran mayor, Ghalibaf has enhanced his reputation for effective management without capturing the imagination the way he did as national police chief with simple ideas like the 110 emergency line and shifting policemen from Paykans to Mercedes.

So it may be that Ghalibaf can be persuaded to bide his time for a challenge in 2013, when he will still be 51, rather than face a second defeat now and become what one parliamentary deputy called a “burnt pawn.”

The 2009 presidential elections still have a long way to run.

Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau

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