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Iran presidential campaigns off to early start

The competition for the Iranian presidency has begun in unusual haste, with the candidates trading sharp barbs four months before a crucial election that hinges on the state of the economy and probably will influence the Islamic Republic’s relations with the United States.

Former President Mohammad Khatami, a relative liberal who announced his candidacy this month, has come out swinging against his main rival, incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Khatami has accused the president of damaging Iran’s foreign relations and has launched a campaign tour through the provinces.

Ahmadinejad and his supporters also have started an aggressive campaign, with news media launching attacks on Khatami and the conservative president wooing swing voters with promises of “justice shares” -- $60 cash giveaways to voters.

Last week Ahmadinejad toured Yazd, Khatami’s hometown, in an effort to challenge the popular cleric. “The people of Yazd welcome Ahmadinejad with unprecedented hospitality,” declared a front-page headline in the newspaper Iran, which favors the president.

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The burst of events is a break from the past: Iran’s campaigns typically heat up a month or two or even a few weeks before election day. Political posters often are not allowed until a week before the vote.

The early campaigning underscores the divisive and decisive nature of the June 12 presidential election, which may determine whether Iran and the United States achieve some kind of understanding on a variety of issues, including the Islamic Republic’s controversial nuclear program.

Iran’s political system combines elements of a democratic republic and a theocracy. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei oversees crucial matters of state, such as relations with the U.S., but has to contend with a dynamic political system and numerous centers of power, including think tanks, religious charities and the military. Candidates for public office must demonstrate fealty to the Islamic system, yet they compete ferociously.

“Whoever takes over will have a vote . . . in the decision-making process,” said Mohammad Hassan Khani, a professor of political science at Imam Sadegh University in Tehran, the capital. “It matters who is going to be next president as far as the Iranian-American relationship is concerned. [But] to some extent it is not going to determine the future of the relationship because the decision is not his.”

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The political establishment is grouped into about half a dozen factions that include liberals like Khatami who call themselves reformists, conservatives who call themselves “principlists,” and groups in between switching partners in a dance of shifting alliances.

Turnout will be a huge factor on election day. Educated city dwellers supportive of Khatami tend to stay away from the polls more than the lower-class Ahmadinejad supporters in the countryside.

Lower-middle-class urbanites will also be a decisive constituency that could swing for either camp. Ahmadinejad wants to win their votes by handing out cash, a move Khamenei may disallow, analysts said. But they also have fond memories of the Khatami years, when the economy was more responsibly run and Iran’s more positive relations with other countries made trade easier.

“They don’t know whom to vote for,” said Ahmad Bakhshayeshi, a political scientist at Tehran’s Islamic Azad University. “They look at their wallets, they take a look at the slogans and the popular wave, and then they decide.”

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In addition to Ahmadinejad and Khatami, other potential and declared presidential contenders include former parliament Speaker Mehdi Karroubi, a reformist slightly to the right of Khatami; former chief nuclear negotiator Hassan Row- hani, a relative centrist; and Tehran Mayor Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf, a principlist with a flashier armed forces pedigree than Ahmadinejad.

Khatami faces formidable obstacles on his road to the presidency, including state-controlled news media loyal to the principlists and a clerical establishment that remains deeply suspicious of his cause. Members of Iran’s powerful security forces and Khamenei are believed to strongly back Ahmadinejad over Khatami, whose raucous followers challenged the country’s system during his 1997-2005 presidency. But most analysts say Khamenei will jettison Ahmadinejad if popular sentiment shifts toward Khatami.

Ahmadinejad’s enemies abroad are joined by a host of domestic rivals, including Qalibaf, who regularly denounces him. Rowhani, who is close to Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president, also has begun to take aim at Ahmadinejad. Last week Qalibaf noted that the inflation rate, which had dropped to single digits under Khatami’s presidency, had climbed again. Inflation is running at least 25% a year.

Rafsanjani has begun to place his formidable political machinery at the disposal of the president’s rivals, including Khatami. Even the right-wing newspaper Jomhouri Eslami took Ahmadinejad to task for turning celebrations marking the 30th anniversary of the revolution into a campaign event.

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Khatami’s supporters say he also won’t repeat the mistakes of Rafsanjani, who lost to Ahmadinejad after running what many described as an elitist campaign. Khatami plans to barnstorm the country. A sometimes wordy and inscrutable scholar of philosophy, Khatami has vowed to zero in on bread-and-butter concerns rather than make abstract appeals for building democracy and civil society.

He has also indicated that he won’t challenge Iran’s political system or its constitution and leadership, a move meant as much to soothe the fears of suspicious hard-liners as to acknowledge the limits of the reforms Khatami once touted.

Still, even in the first days of the campaign he has shown some scrappiness in countering his critics.

“For the time being mass media and many circles and institutes are intending to destroy the reformists,” he told the daily Etemaad, after a right-wing newspaper kicked up a firestorm by comparing him to Benazir Bhutto, the U.S.-backed Pakistani candidate killed in a 2007 terrorist attack.

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“Of course the destruction will be as usual counterproductive for them,” he said. “Baseless libels and lies cannot be attributed to Islam and its values.”

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daragahi@latimes.com

Special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim contributed to this report.

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