Iran General NewsWe want the right to party – not a...

We want the right to party – not a futile vote, say alienated youth

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The Times: Gelled hair, shades, jeans and attitude: the youth
of Isfahan were hanging out in the neon-lit night of Nazar
Street doing what young men do best — smoking, posing and watching the girls. But they were feeling the pressure of their idle delight. “We don’t have any privacy,” began Irbad, 21, who is unemployed. . “We’re not free in the street, we’re not free to party, we’re not free at home. They can search us at any time.” The Times

From Anthony Loyd and Ramita Navai in Isfahan, Iran

GELLED hair, shades, jeans and attitude: the youth of Isfahan were hanging out in the neon-lit night of Nazar Street doing what young men do best — smoking, posing and watching the girls. But they were feeling the pressure of their idle delight.

“We don’t have any privacy,” began Irbad, 21, who is unemployed. . “We’re not free in the street, we’re not free to party, we’re not free at home. They can search us at any time. It’s not just one thing. It’s all of it. I want life to change completely. I want freedom.”

The young men griped at the harassment they said that they suffer from the roving patrols of police, Revolutionary Guard and Basiji, the volunteer force loyal to the hardline regime.

They bridled at the blocks on internet sites and the lack of jobs. Six out of the gang’s ten have been held in the morality jail of Isfahan and claimed to have been beaten for trivial cultural misdemeanours. They typify the disilllusionment among the 66 per cent of the 70million Iranians who are under 30 years old, the majority of whom feel profoundly alienated from the regime.

The youth vote should be the fulcrum for change in the presidential election on Friday. But rather than campaigning against the regime, the question facing most is whether or not to bother voting at all.

Iran has high unemployment, a shaky economy and a poor record on civil liberties. Internationally, it faces long-standing estrangement with America, criticism of its contentious nuclear programme and an impasse with Israel.

Yet the manifestos of the eight candidates are mostly repackaged versions of the same loose promises, and the potentially decisive youth vote has been disappointed by its earlier support for President Khatami, who won sweeping presidential victories in 1997 and 2001, promising reform and a relaxed social climate.

But during a tenure in which his powers were largely negated by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the unelected Supreme Leader, more than 100 newspapers were closed and critical journalists and bloggers thrown in jail.

“I’m not voting this time,” said Saman, a 21-year-old student. “Khatami promised us many things, but couldn’t do anything. Why should we believe another reformist will be different?” The boycott movement, backed by dominant student union groups, will pique the regime. Most Iranian elections get a 70 per cent turnout, and a high vote gives the regime a degree of political legitimacy as well as an easy riposte to any suggestion by Britain or America that it is undemocratic. Ayatollah Khamenei has already issued a fatwa on the subject, saying that it is Iranians’ duty to vote. However, a boycott will not affect a ruling élite who do not rely on popular support.

“Eighty per cent of people here hold their Government in contempt,” said a senior diplomat last week. “The regime knows that and has to balance things to stay in place.”

More likely a boycott will simply bolster the country’s 10 per cent hardline vote. Ostensibly, the vote is free and fair. Iran does not have a reputation for vote-rigging and ballot-stuffing. The constitution allows the Supreme Leader and his hardline Council of Guardians to select the candidates and control parliamentary membership.

Leading the election field so far, according to local polls, is Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, 70, the former President and de facto number two in the complex Iranian power structure.Though critics accuse him of corruption and point to the murder of numerous dissidents during his tenure, Mr Rafsanjani has reinvented himself, attracting the high-society set of north Tehran with beautiful girls on rollerblades handing out posters wearing short tight Islamic gear, and securing the working-class vote with the promise of economic growth. Though he has, in the past, called President Bush a “bird-brained dinosaur”, Mr Rafsanjani also hints of a rapprochement with America.

Trailing well behind is Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf, 43, a former Revolutionary Guard officer and police chief. Desperate to shake off his reputation as a hardliner close to the Supreme Leader, Mr Qalibaf has started a slick election campaign complete with spin doctors and focus groups.

Reinventing himself as a dashing young modernist who moonlights as an airline pilot, his latest motto is: “We are not a nation of camel riders.” His appeal to youth has been tarnished by the revelation of a letter he wrote in 1999 denouncing student protests.

Mostafa Moin, 54, the only reformist in the field, is a former education minister trailing third ahead of five no-hopers. With less than a week to go, Mr Moin has stepped up his game by radicalising his campaign. Fearful that the elections will mark the death of the reform movement, he is daring to cross the Islamic Republic’s red lines in a last-ditch effort to lure a disillusioned electorate and a growing number of boycotters to the ballot.

Tackling the Republic’s taboo subjects, Mr Moin has promised to free all political prisoners and has signed a pact with a banned liberal group. The only candidate to go anywhere near the question of constitutional reform, Mr Moin has even questioned the power of the Supreme Leader.

The vote is likely to go to a second round unless there is a clear majority of more than 50 per cent for an individual candidate on Friday. Privately, foreign diplomats suggest that a win for Mr Rafsanjani would best serve Iranian relations at home and abroad. They fear that Mr Moin would simply be steamrollered by the regime as Mr Khatami was, while a victory for Mr Qalibaf would result in new militarisation.

• At least eight people were killed and 75 others injured yesterday when a string of bomb attacks rocked government buildings in the southwestern city of Ahvaz, an ethnic-Arab majority city close to Iraq. Gholam Reza Shariati, deputy governor of the province of Khuzestan, said the unidentified attackers were trying to damage “the territorial integrity of the country and the election process”. Iran’s state-run television reported that one person was killed in another bombing hours afterwards in central Tehran.

POWER JEALOUSLY GUARDED

• Iran’s Islamic Republic is ruled by a spiritual leader, the Supreme Leader. Chosen for life by the Assembly of (Theological) Experts, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has held this post since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989

• A 12-strong Council of Guardians is headed by the Supreme Leader, who heads the highest judicial authority and is commander-in-chief of the armed forces

• Council of Guardians can block or amend legislation

• The President is elected to a four-year term by at least 50 per cent plus one of votes from Iran’s 41 million electorate over the age of 15. A maximum two terms is possible. The list of candidates is first selected by the Council of Guardians

• Parliament, the Islamic Consultative Assembly, has 290 members. Candidates must first be approved by the Council of Guardians

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