Class Is Pivotal In Iran Runoff

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 24, 2005

BAGHERABAD, Iran -- In the 26 years since the Iranian revolution, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has become not only a millionaire but the most conspicuous embodiment of a privileged political class far removed from the struggles of ordinary people.

Class has become a pivotal issue in Friday's vote for Iran's next president. And the gap between the country's political elite and everyone else has been sharpened by the surprise emergence of Rafsanjani's opponent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the hard-line mayor of Tehran whose working-class background has endeared him to many Iranians and made the runoff election too close to call.

In Bagherabad, a sun-blasted working-class town 20 miles and a world away from the luxury high-rises of north Tehran, residents welcome the mayor's arrival on a political scene many have come to view with sullen anger.

"People talk about him a lot and say he's a good man to vote for," said Kobra Hassanzadeh, 50, behind the counter of a corner store that supports a family of five on $14 a day.

"They say he seems like us."

The number of other Iranians who see an ally in Ahmadinejad may decide Friday's vote, the first runoff in recent Iranian history. Campaign officials for Rafsanjani insist there is a limit to his rival's appeal. Of the 29 million votes split among seven candidates in the first round, they calculate that Ahmadinejad can count on no more than 11 million in the second round. If that's the case, they say, the mayor would prevail only if overall turnout dips toward 20 million.

"He has a mix of both religious conservative votes and rural and urban poor. That is a big base," said Nasser Hadian-Jazy, a political scientist who favors Rafsanjani.

Still, Hadian-Jazy said he believed Rafsanjani would win because reformers were worried about the alternative. "There's the fear factor," he said. "People will come out."

This week, it was Rafsanjani's campaign that looked to be running scared. The two-time former president bested Ahmadinejad by about 1 percentage point last week, then spent the brief runoff campaign promising to draw attention to social justice issues that his opponent had campaigned on heavily. On Thursday, a Rafsanjani supporter hastily unveiled a promise to put $11,000 in the pocket of every Iranian family by selling off state assets.

But it was the populist campaign of the scruffy, bearded Ahmadinejad that threw open a window on public discontent in Iran.

After last week's vote, an exit poll by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance found many voters were motivated by anger over the gap between rich and poor.

"Business is no good unless you enjoy a government rent or are the son of a cleric," said Faramarz Etemadi, 52, peddling black fabric for women's veils at a stall in Tehran's vast bazaar. "We had one shah, and now we have thousands."

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