By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 30, 2009
TEHRAN, May 29 -- Iran's urban middle class is increasingly disenchanted with the current government and may turn out in larger numbers than four years ago to oppose President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, voters said in interviews here.
In 2005, many of Tehran's 12 million residents boycotted the presidential election to protest a system they thought did not represent them. But many say they are going to vote against Ahmadinejad on June 12.
There are no trustworthy opinion polls in Iran, and turnout is highly dependent on current events, but many people who rarely vote are saying that this time, they will.
"I never voted for anybody, because I don't like this system," said Faranak, a Tehran housewife who asked not to be further identified. "But this time, I will bring my entire family to vote for one of the opponents of Ahmadinejad."
Leili Rashidi, a well-known Iranian actress, said four more years of Ahmadinejad would be disastrous. "The middle classes are decaying under this government," she said. As a prominent Iranian, Rashidi said, she considers it her duty to try to cause change. "We should massively vote Ahmadinejad out, or we will be lost."
Others who normally shy away from politics, including prominent artists, athletes and academics, have joined Rashidi in speaking at campaign rallies, urging people to vote.
Seventy percent of Iran's population lives in cities, and urban voters generally support candidates who promise expanded rights, more personal freedoms and better relations with other nations.
"We want Ahmadinejad to go," said Tina, a 21-year-old computer engineering student, speaking outside a sandwich shop in a stylish northern Tehran neighborhood. Neither she nor her friends have ever voted in an Iranian election, she said. "But Ahmadinejad has made the lives of people in the cities miserable. So now all of us will vote, and we will vote him out."
The complaints from the middle class appear rooted in several causes. Thousands of experienced managers working for state companies and government ministries were replaced by Ahmadinejad supporters. At the same time, Iran's private entrepreneurs, who make up about 20 percent of the economy and provide many jobs in the cities, were hurt by an influx of imported Chinese goods. During Ahmadinejad's term, inflation has run to nearly 30 percent, and the cost of housing in the capital has doubled.
"The middle classes who didn't vote four years ago have now felt what a calamity has befallen us. I don't think the people are as stupid to repeat their error," Rashidi said, speaking on her cellphone on her way to shoot a campaign film for the president's main challenger, former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, who seems to be gaining momentum.
Nightmares of war with the United States have plagued her in recent years, Rashidi said, and she could no longer stand to keep quiet. "These elections are our chance for a better future," she said. "If city voters stay home now, only more fear and destruction await us."
Appealing to city voters, Mousavi and the other significant challenger, cleric Mehdi Karroubi, have said that, if elected, they would stop the morality police patrols, which are intensely disliked. The patrols began operating in major cities after Ahmadinejad's election.
Stationed at the entrances to shopping malls and busy streets, the patrols have detained thousands of women for wearing what morality police consider improper Islamic dress. Tehran women with a taste for dressing out of the ordinary have been taken to the police station for wearing boots over their trousers or showing too much hair from under their obligatory head scarves.
"Now there is an atmosphere of fear because of these patrols," Tina said as she took money from her black leather Gucci handbag to buy a chicken sandwich. "During the previous president, we never had such fears," she said, referring to Mohammad Khatami, a hugely popular leader who implemented social freedoms during his 1997-2005 term. He now backs Mousavi.
Ahmadinejad's opponents are campaigning fiercely in Tehran and other major urban centers.
"If Ahmadinejad wins again, there will be great hopelessness, especially if many people decide to turn out," said Nasim Anvari, waiting for Mousavi to arrive Monday at the airport in Tabriz, Iran's fourth-largest city and a major trade hub. "We have many problems here in Iran. We need educated people to solve them. Thank God we have good candidates to choose from; there are no excuses this time," she said.
Ahmadinejad, a populist who has often relied on the poor and working class for his political base, has been handing out cash, and even potatoes, in backwater areas where presidents have not campaigned before.
"Our government has from the very beginning shown that it does not see the whole of Iran as Tehran," presidential adviser Ali Reza Zaker Isfahani said during a speech in the provincial town of Ardel, according to the semiofficial Fars news agency. "The policies were based on justice, and that's why they focus away from the metropolises. Ahmadinejad has tried to spend the budget for the weak all over Iran," he said.
In the 2005 vote, Ahmadinejad won on the second ballot. Of the 46 million eligible voters, more than half stayed home, making it relatively easy for him to win the necessary 50 percent.
"God willing, the people will participate in the elections with a high percentage," Mousavi told a crowd of more than 30,000 people in a Tabriz soccer stadium. As he stepped onstage with his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, a former university dean, thousands screamed his name. "If we use this never-ending power of the people, we can get our rights," Mousavi said.
Ahmadinejad, with his trademark worker's coat, scruffy beard and confrontational remarks, seems a world away from Iran's middle and upper classes, which pride themselves on their refinement.
Urban culture has become much more dominant, said Naser Fakohi, a professor of anthropology at the University of Tehran. "Ahmadinejad, for city people, does not embody the social status that many people want to achieve."