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The politics of illusion in Iran

Nazila Fathi
2 August 2005

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won a landslide victory in Iran’s presidential election on 24 June on a platform of distributing the nation’s wealth fairly among its people. More than 17 million voters shifted their focus from social and political liberties – the central issue of the last few years in Iran – to their pocketbooks. As he is inaugurated today, 3 August, it is clear that the new president faces an arduous task if he is determined to maintain his popular support and fulfil his promise.

Also in openDemocracy on Iranian democracy:

IranScan 1384 – Hossein Derakhshan, Mr Behi, Nema Milaninia, Farideh Nicknazar and others report and discuss Iran’s democratic process and potential

Iran’s road to democracy – a debate opened by Mohsen Sazegara’s proposal of a referendum on a new constitution for Iran; Mehrdad Mashayekhi, Bezhad Yaghmaian, Kaveh Ehsani, Afshin Molavi, and others respond

Ardashir Tehrani, Hamid Zanganeh, Ramin Jahanbegloo, Bahram Rajaee, Nader Entessar and other Iranians assess the reasons for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s victory, and the post-election mood in Iran

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The severity of the economic problems in a country where 15 million people (in a population of 68 million) live in poverty was a vital factor in the election result. Ahmadinejad’s campaign message of economic hope and social justice not only captured the hearts of lower-class citizens, but also of many middle-class ones who have witnessed a minority amass wealth while the majority of people cope with double-digit inflation.

Iran’s central bank and ministry of employment recently released figures that confirm the gloomy picture: inflation is above 15% and unemployment is 11%. The government must create nearly 760,000 jobs every year even to stabilize this problem.

The vote for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad showed that democracy in Iran will become possible only when economic development can provide some comfort for the majority of its people. Many who voted for Tehran’s mayor said in interviews that social and political freedoms meant little to them when they could not make ends meet. In the first round on 17 June, a majority in villages and small towns voted for Mehdi Karroubi, who had promised a monthly payment of $60 to every Iranian over the age of 18. Many of these people switched to Ahmadinejad in the second round when he made that promise his own; this proved to be one of his most astute and endearing pledges.

In his television advertisements between the two rounds, Ahmadinejad offered simple solutions for complicated problems that have crippled Iran’s economy over the twenty-six years of the Islamic Republic. He suggested that the government must reduce spending in other areas in order to increase the income of teachers, who have protested for years over low salaries; that Iran must rapidly boost its indigenous industry before joining the World Trade Organisation; and that it must improve public transportation to cut down on gasoline consumption, imports of which cost more than $2 billion each year.

All these will be difficult to achieve. True, Ahmadinejad’s presidency will coincide with a windfall in oil revenues (by the end of March 2005, Iran’s oil revenues exceeded its budget by $24 billion and are expected to increase even more in the next few months). Most analysts argue, however, that the new president’s inexperience in managing a national economy will be a handicap in fulfilling his stated goals.

Most of Iran’s industrial economy (including oil) is in the controlling hands of the state and a group of shadowy foundations (bonyad), which are answerable only to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The result has been mismanagement and corruption. And the survival of powerful unelected bodies depends on the enormous budgets they procure from oil revenues.

In search of a strategy

Democracy advocates adopted two different approaches to the election. The first favoured a boycott on the grounds that the president does not have enough power to carry out meaningful reforms; they argued that a low turnout would delegitimise the regime. The second, which threw its support behind reformist candidate Mostafa Moin, argued that it was better to stay within the system than become marginalised.

This second group has failed to grasp an important reality: that people voted as they did in 2005 for other reasons than disappointment that the reformists in power since 1997 were not reformist enough. Reformist politicians still do not have a strategy; they rely merely on the hope that people will once again support them once they realise that Ahmadinejad is not capable of delivering on his economic promises.

“We might have lost the masses of the people but the intellectuals are with us”, Mostafa Tajzadeh – a reformist and former deputy interior minister close to Moin – told me after Ahmadinejad’s victory. “Whoever is in power becomes responsible for all the problems in the country. I think Khatami and the reformers will become popular”, he said, “as soon as the new president takes over.”

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