As Iran Election Nears, Ahmadinejad Rivals Gain Hope

As Iran Election Nears, Ahmadinejad Rivals Gain Hope

Those old enough to remember compare the atmosphere on Tehran’s streets ahead of Friday’s election to the heady days of Iran’s revolution 30 years ago. For a week now, the capital’s main arteries have been clogged by tens of thousands of supporters of opposition presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, often in cars and on motorbikes, waving large green banners, stretching their torsos out the windows to dance to blaring techno beats composed for the candidate, urging a vote for the man best placed to unseat President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

It’s a late surge, to be sure, and the electric atmosphere on the streets has taken many by surprise, given the years of apathy and disillusionment that followed the failure of the reform movement led by former President Mohammed Khatami. Despite widespread dissatisfaction with Ahmadinejad’s performance in office, a little more than a week ago, opinion polls showed Ahmadinejad ahead of Mousavi. And opposition supporters were depressed by what at first appeared to be Ahmadinejad’s victory in the country’s first-ever TV debates, as he accused both of his reformist rivals, Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, of being part of a corrupt political establishment.

Adopting the style of a populist demagogue, Ahmadinejad hasn’t allowed facts to spoil a good argument. In public appearances, for example, he has repeatedly claimed that Iran’s inflation rate is 15%, whereas the country’s Central Bank puts it at 25%. He insists, against the evidence, that unemployment and the country’s disparity in wealth are both on the decline, and he casts himself as an Iranian Robin Hood, depicted on banners as bowing to poor old farmers and deprived children. And in a neat trick for an incumbent, he styles himself as an insurgent outsider: “For four years, power has been out of their hands,” says one Ahmadinejad campaign ad. “If we stay for another four years, we will forever eliminate the gang of power and wealth and rescue the revolution completely.”

Following his pummeling of opposition candidates in the debates, the President’s supporters roamed the streets of Tehran, flush with confidence, brandishing the Iranian flag. But instead of throwing in the towel, Ahmadinejad’s challengers went on the offensive. Mousavi, Karroubi and Mohsen Rezai, a conservative challenger, turned their debates with one another into condemnations of Ahmadinejad.

“We are dealing with an astonishing phenomenon here,” said Mousavi in one debate. “We’re dealing with someone who looks you in the eyes and says white is black … He has turned the country into a place full of lies and hypocrisy.”

That charge turned into a rallying cry for Mousavi supporters, who have taken to chanting “Liar! Liar!” whenever they encounter the President’s backers. When he faced Rezai, a former Revolutionary Guard commander, in the final debate on Monday, Ahmadinejad appeared less confident. Rezai challenged the President on the economic numbers, saying, “People, after all, live in this country. They experience inflation. They know the price of things.”

Out on the streets, a sense is growing that the tide may be turning against the incumbent. Mousavi supporter Emad Mortazavi, a 24-year-old sociology student, said, “Last week, there was suddenly this feeling that it was possible, that Mousavi could get enough votes. Social-networking sites and text-messaging have played a big role in spreading the message.”

A key factor in changing the equation appears to have been Ahmadinejad’s character assassinations of leading political figures and, especially, his insinuation that Mousavi’s wife, Professor Zahra Rahnavard, had improperly gained her academic job. “That may have been the turning point,” said former Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi. “He insulted Iranians’ sense of decency.”

The hostile political atmosphere appears likely to ensure a high turnout.
“A lot of people who have never voted are planning to vote,” says University of Tehran professor Nasser Hadian. “This is a referendum on Ahmadinejad. It’s more a movement against the President than anything else.”

Ahmadinejad’s supporters remain confident, however. On Monday, tens of thousands gathered to hear the President speak at a large mosque in central Tehran. Although many were clearly recognizable by their dress as religious conservatives and members of the basij militia, there were also liberally dressed attendees throwing their support to Ahmadinejad.

Raheleh Rahim, 27, an architect rushing toward the event dressed in white and a lot of makeup, told TIME, “[Ahmadinejad] has raised my retired grandmother’s pension — she was a teacher — as well as my mother’s salary — she is a nurse. These are the things that really matter.” Mousavi supporters, she said, “keep talking about freedom — I have all the freedom I need in this country.”

Inside the mosque, the crowd was delirious. The famous panegyrist Mahmood Karimi took the podium and narrated an encounter with Ahmadinejad. ” ‘Don’t you get tired traveling from province to province’ I asked him,” said Karimi. “He said, ‘My heart is fueled by nuclear energy!’ ”

As competing crowds of supporters mass on the streets each night, some,
like Hadian, are now predicting a Mousavi victory in the first round. Others are more cautious, unsure of the mood outside the capital and aware that Iranian elections are notoriously difficult to predict.

A new poll conducted by a group of university researchers predicts a Mousavi win in the first round with 54% of votes, compared to 24% for Ahmadinejad. The poll predicts an unprecedented turnout of 84%. Still, Abtahi told TIME, “It all depends on voters’ participation rate. The great crowd of Mousavi supporters has to translate into votes on Friday. Let’s hope those young girls and boys aren’t more interested in getting each other’s phone numbers than they are in voting.”
See TIME’s Person of the Year, People Who Mattered, and more.

See TIME’s Pictures of the Week.