“I’ve never voted. Heck, the election page in my ID paper is still blank,” observed my friend Cyrus last week in the cafeteria. “But this time it’s different. I do not want that dickhead to be our president again.”
When I’m talking to Cyrus, it’s hard not to get distracted by his Playboy necklace. The white bunny has gotten him into trouble several times with the police, but he keeps it prominently displayed nonetheless. The necklace clearly marks Cyrus as one of Iran’s young hipsters, part of an under-30 generation that comprises nearly three-quarters of the population.
“Why not Ahmadinejad?” I ask.
“Because he’s one crazy son of a bitch,” Cyrus says.
The really agonizing choice before young Iranians is not selecting a presidential candidate. Rather, it’s determining how much to be invested in this faux election.
Cyrus rarely talks about anything but girls, so it was surprising to hear him sound off so passionately about politics, in his own colorful way. He’s going to the polls on Friday to prevent the recurrence of what he calls a “four-year-long nightmare.” He doesn’t care who wins the race, as long as the new president is not Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Politically conservative and devoutly religious, my parents are the antithesis to Cyrus in every way. Their main source of information is state-run TV, whose head is directly chosen by the supreme leader every five years. Not surprisingly, my parents have a great respect for Ayatollah Khamenei.
“I’ll vote for whomever the supreme leader approves,” my mother recently declared during dinner. She meant of course Ahmadinejad, whom few doubt is Khamenei’s favorite son. A campaign ad for Ahmadinejad even features a direct quote from the supreme leader: “With Ahmadinejad the revolution returned to its original track.”
As for my father, well, he has no interest in reform. During the 1999 student uprising, when masses of young people mobilized on university campuses to protest repression, my father knew whom to blame for the unrest.
While the TV showed the supreme leader declare, in a shaking voice, that he would pardon those students lighting his picture on fire (prompting sobs from the mosque’s audience), my father telephoned the office of then President Khatami to deliver an angry message: “God damn you reformers for bringing this on us. God damn you!”
By voting for Ahmadinejad, my father hopes to prevent the recurrence of those tumultuous times, “when anti-revolutionaries roamed the country and values were being eroded every day by the reformers.”
My parents and Cyrus form the ends of two divergent vectors—whose outcome will determine whether Ahmadinejad enjoys the spotlight for another four years.
On the one hand, the incumbent has a high chance of winning. Ahmadinejad’s populist approach, his self-proclaimed crusade against “the mafia,” his battle cry for “establishing justice,” and his outreach to the beleaguered masses has made him a hero for millions. And as for the economy, or rather its mismanagement—which many analysts cite as Ahmadinejad’s Achilles’ heel—well, many Iranians simply do not see the president as the cause. In fact, in one of his televised debates Ahmadinejad displayed graphs illustrating how life has never been as good as now, with the best still to come.
But colorful pie charts and bar graphs cannot guarantee Ahmadinejad’s re-election. Although he denies any crackdown, the president’s repression of civil rights has made him vulnerable in metropolitan areas. It was, after all, on his watch that the morality squads began roaming the cities to arrest young women with veils that failed to cover enough hair.
The Internet-savvy generation, which can access alternative-media outlets, has made the virtual world hostile territory for the incumbent. In a recent poll by the underground Web site Balatarin.com, Ahmadinejad secured just 15 percent of the vote, while the challenger candidates Mir Housein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi won 61 and 22 percent, respectively.
International audiences have gotten to know Ahmadinejad quite well over the past four years, due in large part to his flair for the theatric and the incendiary. But much less is known about his two main competitors, the men Cyrus and thousands of others will end up casting ballots for this week.
Mousavi, a former prime minister whose supporters wear green, his campaign color, is considered Ahmadinejad’s main opponent. Called a “reformist” candidate for his proposals to roll back some legal restrictions on Iranian social life, Mousavi has been prominently accompanied by his wife throughout the campaign
It’s an unprecedented move in Iran, all the more significant given that no female candidate has ever been approved to run by the Guardian Council, the unelected body that effectively “guards” the country and approves nominees before any election. Zahra Rahnavard is no Michelle Obama—her possibly toned arms are hidden beneath a chador—but her presence signals that Mousavi represents a political elite seeking to scale back Ahmadinehad’s theatrics while pushing symbolic reforms.
Even less well-known, and even more groundbreaking, is Karroubi, a member of the ethnic Lor minority who has been delivering fiery speeches and producing taboo-busting campaign videos that violate the Islamic republic’s conventions. Young Iranians have never seen such a radical agenda articulated in the open. Karroubi has, for instance, questioned the role of the Guardian Council. He also has called for a reform of the laws relating to women and has proposed appointing a human rights deputy to ensure the protection of all citizens’ civil rights.
Despite his groundbreaking message, Karroubi has no shot at victory. At 71, he is the oldest candidate and the only imam. He may be the most radical reformist among the candidates, but Iranians have their own way of moving toward secularization and seem unlikely to elect a cleric as president again.
In the end, the really agonizing choice before young Iranians is not selecting a presidential candidate. Rather, it’s determining how much to be invested in this faux election, which provides an emotional outlet for debating policy but does not actually determine Iran’s leadership. Regardless of who wins, Khamenei remains the supreme leader. Yet within the framework of his dictatorship, this week’s election gives Iranians the chance to act out the mechanisms of the democratic process, with debates, campaigning, sloganeering, and more.
In that respect, Iranians experience something much richer than the Middle East’s other faux elections, like in Tunisia, where President Ben Ali’s 90-plus percent of the vote is guaranteed, or Jordan, where all that is contested is a largely symbolic parliament. Many young Iranians are thus left with a tantalizing but ephemeral taste of what Iran could look like as a real democracy, with open civil discourse and elections not presided over by a supreme leader. Whoever wins on Friday, the real question looming over Iran’s future is whether such a democratic Iran will emerge before Cyrus retires his Playboy bunny pendant.
The writer, who uses a pseudonym for his own safety, is a university student in Iran.