President Who?

Why did so many people underestimate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?

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Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: the people’s choice

TEHRAN, Iran—At dawn last Saturday in Narmak, a working-class neighborhood in south Tehran, a group of young, black-clad paramilitary cadets paraded through the streets singing Shiite devotional songs and clutching poster-sized images of a hometown boy who had made it to the top. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the son of a blacksmith who had risen through the ranks of the revolutionary guard to become Tehran’s mayor, had just been elected president in a landslide run-off victory.

Ahmadinejad’s triumph stunned foreign observers and Iranians alike—especially the unlikely alliance of reformists and pragmatists who had thrown their support behind former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the most enduring icons of economic and political corruption in post-revolutionary Iran. Rafsanjani, a conservative oddly recast as a pragmatic moderate, was nearly universally expected to ride his slick campaign to victory on a platform of opening up the economy and improving ties to the West. But by the early evening of Election Day, it was clear that Ahmadinejad, an obscure conservative with spotless revolutionary credentials, had received almost twice the number of votes as his rival. (While allegations of ballot-stuffing and coercive voting practices have been raised by Rafsanjani and others, the gap of 7 million votes between the two candidates can’t be explained away.)

Why did so many people get the election so wrong? The answer lies in villages, military barracks, and mosques outside of the capital—among those working-class and rural Iranians who face soaring joblessness (unemployment is officially 11 percent, but it’s almost certainly higher) and double-digit inflation, citizens who don’t care about press freedoms, dress codes, or mending Iran’s relations with the West. In the end, the importance of everyday concerns—salaries, the standard of living, corruption, and the like—were underestimated.

Throughout Iran’s history, those wielding power have rarely been intimate with the worries of the nation’s vast population. The Qajar rulers governed with an iron fist in the 19th century and did little to serve the people while they erected opulent palaces; Reza Shah modernized with a big stick and effectively alienated many traditional Iranians; and most recently the post-revolutionary reformists could not translate their own lofty ideals into concrete realities relevant to the majority of Iranians. While many Western observers hailed the onset of a bold new reformist era infused with the language of democratization, human rights, and secularism–perhaps most compellingly manifest in the platforms of first-round candidates Mostafa Moin and Mehdi Karroubi—one plain-speaking dark horse, believed to be backed by the highest echelons of the Islamic republic and the military establishment, was working his way around the country talking about giving ordinary citizens a larger chunk of the country’s oil wealth, fighting corruption, and even espousing a return to the fundamentals of a “true Islam.”

Many among Iran’s privileged few fretted that Ahmadinejad would reverse outgoing President Mohamad Khatami’s small social openings of the last eight years (rumors abound that he plans to instate separate sidewalks for men and women), cement Iran’s isolation from the international community (he defends Iran’s nuclear program and is ambiguous about restoring ties to America), and turn Iran’s economy upside down with protectionist and redistributive measures. Many more Iranians, however, had nothing to lose—so they voted for the earnest former city planner.

At a packed Ahmadinejad rally in central Tehran last week, conservative parliamentarian Emad Afrough delivered a rousing diatribe against “democracy, secularism, and humanism.” In a speech that was reminiscent of the inflammatory rhetoric of the revolutionary era, he told a spellbound audience that those values “will not take root here.” Parallels to the rhetoric of 1979 should come as no surprise, particularly as the president-elect is a member of a generation that came of age amid revolution, fought the Iraqis in a holy war, and formed the backbone of the Islamic republic. After Khatami failed to deliver on reformist hopes, Ahmadinejad’s victory may represent the moment when the reformist movement wore out its welcome. What’s more, stand-offs between uniformed basiji (paramilitary) youth and well-heeled hipsters from North Tehran on the city’s broad boulevards during election week seemed emblematic of a growing divide. Ahmadinejad’s broad support may signal the rise of the have-nots.

Rafsanjani’s high-profile campaign failed to connect with the millions in villages and smaller towns across the country who associated his presidency with the maintenance of a status quo that did them few favors. His campaign events, posters, and films—marked by soft-focus docu-dramas, cute girls, fast cars, and English-language slogans—alienated many. Ahmadinejad, on the other hand, ran on the strength of his modest manner and Stakhanovite work ethic. “I don’t have a sauna or a summer home,” he told an interviewer in an election-eve show that was filmed in his stark 750-square-foot residence. His motto, “It’s possible and we can do it,” was simple; his socialist-tinged plans were appealing. His no-frills Web site was simply called Mardomyar—”Friend of the People.”

Pollsters, analysts, and journalists seem to have done a poor job of speaking to ordinary Iranians. Rather, they tended to turn to the residents of posh northern Tehran, intellectuals educated abroad, and bloggers. Albeit often reluctantly, these voices almost all predicted a second-round Rafsanjani victory. Like tight hijab, clandestine parties, and female race-car drivers in the Islamic republic, the story of Iran’s bloggers became a Western journalistic cliché. What failed to register for many of the reporters seduced by blog culture was the fact that it remains a privileged enterprise; in a country of 70 million, only about 5 million to 7 million Iranians regularly read newspapers or use the Internet.

And finally, analysts underestimated the power of small, uncomplicated ideas. Across the country, many voters simply believe in Ahmadinejad and his vision for a modern Islamic nation. Walking around Tehran last week, one would be hard-pressed to find anyone waxing passionately in favor of Rafsanjani—he was, after all, most often a reluctant choice. Residents of small towns across the country may have displayed Rafsanjani’s campaign posters on their homes—he is still one of the most powerful men in the country—but in private they supported, and finally voted for, the straight-talking son of a blacksmith who fed them tales of a better tomorrow to come.