The Telegraph: To many voters casting a ballot in this week’s Iranian presidential elections, there will be little real difference between the boxes marked “Saeed Jalili” and “Mohamed Qalibaf”.
By Colin Freeman
To many voters casting a ballot in this week’s Iranian presidential elections, there will be little real difference between the boxes marked “Saeed Jalili” and “Mohamed Qalibaf”.
The former is an ex-Revolutionary Guardsman bent on spreading Iran’s Islamic revolution around the world, the latter a tough ex-police chief who boasts of personally beating protesters during anti-government demonstrations.
Deciding between one regime loyalist and another is, however, the closest that Iranians will get to a choice in this Friday’s polls, in which only candidates who show complete allegiance to the country’s hardline Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have been allowed to take part. Anxious not to repeat the widespread violence that followed the 2009 elections, when Iran’s reformist camp claimed it had been robbed of victory by vote rigging, Mr Khamenei has decided that this time it would be better if the contest included no regime critics at all.
This time around, the main reformist candidate of 2009, Mir Hossein Mousavi, remains a political prisoner in his own home in suburban Tehran, where he has languished under house arrest for the past two years. A black metal gate now blocks the alleyway to his villa, and in the run-up to the polls, there has been no word from either him or his fellow reformist, Mehdi Karoubi, who likewise remains under house arrest.
Instead, voters are restricted to a choice of eight candidates of varying conservative hues, of which the silver-bearded Mr Jalili, 47, and the perma-stubbled Mr Qalibaf, 51, are considered the frontrunners. For Iranians hoping to steer away from the recent years of confrontation with the West, neither offers much promise.
Mr Jalili, who is also Iran’s international negotiator on its disputed nuclear programme, is considered the personal favourite of the Supreme Leader, who picked him for the nuclear job partly because of his stern, uncompromising manner. A hardliner’s hardliner, he will make even the outgoing president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, seem biddable by comparison.
Mr Qalibaf, meanwhile, is the mayor of Tehran, a job he inherited from Mr Ahmadinejad when the latter became president in 2005, and in which he is credited with making considerably less of a mess than his predecessor. But his standing as a technocrat in a government packed with ideologues goes hand in hand with a proud record as a regime enforcer.
Last month, a tape surfaced of a speech he made to a pro-regime militia, in which he boasted how as national police chief back in 1999, he took a personal role in suppressing that year’s student demonstrations. “I was among those carrying out beatings on the street level and I am proud of that,” he said. “I didn’t care I was a high-ranking commander.” Elsewhere in the tape, he told how as mayor in 2009, he played an active part in suppressing the “sedition” of the post-election street protests.
Given the options on offer, it is perhaps no surprise that the mood ahead of Friday’s elections has been distinctly subdued. Ahead of the 2009 presidential polls, when many reform-minded Iranians hoped for a break with the past, a carnival atmosphere prevailed across much of Tehran, with impromptu rallies for different candidates and spontaneous street-corner debates on who should win.
This time, anyone who stops to talk politics with a campaign agent may find themselves being asked to move on by police, who claim to have arrested networks of “spies” planning to disrupt the polls. Even pro-regime newspapers have been warned to be careful what they print, and most Western media, including the Telegraph titles, have been denied election press visas.
Among the reform-minded middle classes who live in the smart modern apartment blocks of northern Tehran, the mood as the polls draw near is of despair and defeat. For some, simply being arrested or beaten in 2009’s street protests has been enough to keep them away from active politics. For the more determined, prison sentences of up to seven years – sometimes commuted for promises of good behaviour – have achieved the same thing.
“There is a 100 per cent mood of apathy, something like, ‘if we talk about it, it will hurt even more’,” said “Zahra”, a 25-year-old female graduate, who spoke to The Sunday Telegraph anonymously from Tehran last week. “People are now very quiet about politics in public, although when it comes to private gatherings it is different. With respect to changing the regime, people have given up. We hope it will implode sooner or later, but we might not see it in our lifetimes.”
Nonetheless, some reformists are at least planning to vote rather than stage a mass boycott. “Those of us who have no hope of leaving the country altogether definitely believe that it is better to cast a ballot, because there is a slight chance the situation in Iran would get better,” Zahra said. “The government might count our ballot paper for someone else, sure, but then we can protest and come out to the streets. Besides, do you think we can really undermine the legitimacy of the regime by not voting? Of course not. The government will just decrease the number of polling stations, to create a fake queue that shows people are flocking to the ballot boxes.”
Even with the choices on offer, there is still room for critics of the regime to make their voice heard, albeit in limited fashion. There is, for example, one nominally “reformist” candidate, Mohamad Reza Aref, a former vice president who has criticised Iran’s increasingly tough censorship laws. He lacks any charisma or support base, though, and last month declared that “no-one was more faithful to the Supreme Leader than he was”. Most voters assume that he has only been allowed into the contest to stop it seeming like a whitewash.
More likely to benefit from reformist proxy votes is Mr Qalibaf, who, as a capable administrator, is considered at least a potentially better president than Mr Ahmadinejad, who is stepping down after two terms. As mayor of Tehran, Mr Qalibaf is credited with making vast improvements to its smog-choked urban environment by building bridges and acres of green parks. He has also tackled the city’s notorious road congestion – a problem he ought not to have inherited, given that his predecessor, Mr Ahmadinejad, had a PhD in traffic management.
Many Iranian voters hope that Mr Qalibaf might now be able to bring a similar competence to the economy, which has nosedived under Mr Ahmadinejad’s rule, with inflation rates of up to 30 per cent. While that is partly due to sanctions stopping Iran from selling its oil reserves for hard currency, it is also due to the president’s economically illiterate policies, for which he has relied not on financial experts but religious acolytes. As Mr Qalibaf told voters during a campaign visit to the city of Tabriz, in Iran’s rugged north-west, last week: “You and I have only one enemy, and that is mismanagement of the country.”
Such words will strike a chord with Iranians, who have seen businesses collapse and life savings drain away as inflation has skyrocketed. “Some people will be voting for Mr Qalibaf because they feel he is strong on economics,” said Hussein, 22, a deeply conservative undergraduate from working-class south Tehran, who has no job and lives on a war service stipend originally paid to his father. “They might prefer Mr Jalili ideologically, but they don’t trust him on the economy.”
As the perceived favourite of the Supreme Leader, Mr Jalili will be all but guaranteed a certain share of the vote from regime loyalists. While the Supreme Leader has avoided endorsing any particular candidate publicly, the amount of airtime given on state television to Mr Jalili and the relatively easy ride he has had during interviews have led few to doubt his most-favoured status.
A quiet, steely figure who once ran the Supreme Leader’s office, Mr Jalili boasts impeccable hardliner credentials. He graduated in political science at Tehran’s Imam Sadeq University – the equivalent of Oxford or Cambridge when it comes to producing Iran’s leaders – and, more importantly, also lost a leg during the fighting in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. At rallies, he has been hailed as a “living martyr” by fellow hardliners, who gather in their thousands to hear his jingoistic speeches.
“Our enemies explicitly announce that the Islamic Republic of Iran has not only reached a stability, but is currently a regional power that is on a par with big powers,” he told a crowd outside Tehran on Wednesday.
His campaigning style, though, is lucklustre, and some of his remarks show little idea of how to win over an audience. In a speech last month to a women’s conference, he said a woman’s most important place was “at the home”, a comment that could be unwise given that 60 per cent of Iran’s graduates are females.
The contrast could not be greater with Mr Qalibaf, whose aides studied New Labour’s focus-group techniques for his 2005 presidential bid. As such, many believe that Mr Qalibaf’s rather slicker campaigning style could win him the day over Mr Jalili. An equally pertinent question, however, is what might happen were Mr Qalibaf declared the narrow loser, with or without vote-rigging in Mr Jalili’s favour.
In Iran’s stifled democratic contests, even apparently pro-regime candidates can turn into protest figures if they are seen to be robbed of victory – Mr Mousavi, for example, was not considered much of an anti-establishment figure when he entered the presidential race in 2009. “If there are protests after the election, the millions who turned out on the streets last time will be even greater this time because of the economic pressure,” said Zahra, the reformist.
“Those who don’t care about women’s rights or freedom of speech will come out and fight for their daily bread, and they will fight far harder than we ever did.”