[Editor's note: Today, GlobalPost begins rolling out extensive coverage — in words and pictures — of the 2009 Iranian presidential election. Read more about the carnival atmosphere in Tehran and the campaign's very own "Michelle Obama".]
The Iranian people turned on their TV sets June 3 to an extraordinary sight: a live debate between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the likeliest contender to take over his presidency, Mir-Hossein Mousavi.
If that spectacle — in a country that barely tolerates politics, let alone dissenting politicians — weren't enough, Ahmadinejad went as far as to admit that times were definitely changing.
“Never in the history of the Islamic Republic, has a government been so much criticized during its term and also in the election period,” the vexed president said. “What has happened in the past three months doesn’t make sense to me at all.”
On June 12, the Iranians head to the polls to decide the next chapter in this complex and little-understood society of 72 million people. While Iran has held democratic elections every four years since the 1979 revolution that saw the Ayatollah Khomeini return from exile to lead the new Islamic Republic, Iranians have adhered to the dictates of a conservative religious regime.
Iran watchers agree that this election is one of the most crucial in the Islamic Republic's 30 years of existence. What is at stake is not only the political future of the hardline president, an ultra-conservative former mayor of Tehran who in 2005 beat Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in a run-off vote to become Iran's first non-cleric president for 24 years and whose hold on power hangs entirely on the Guardian Council. In Iran, the Guardian Council can veto would-be election candidates. In turn, the Supreme Leader — at present Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — not only appoints the head of the judiciary and military leaders, he selects six members of the Guardian Council.
Four years of President Ahmadinejad has not only brought about a deterioration in Iran's standing with the West, it has also brought about plummeting economy, high unemployment rates, and a lot of frustration. The cracks in his support — which comes mainly from poorer and more religious regions of Iran — are showing.
But whether or not Ahmadinejad wins this time around, the election has already brought change, beginning with a pre-election period in which opposition candidates are uncharacteristically outspoken young people — which make up a potentially huge electoral force in a country where 30 percent of the citizens are under 30 — are agitating for change and women are playing a bigger part than at any time since the revolution.
Talk of change
The robust dialogue of the election campaign says much about the changes taking place in the electorate. Rarely have Iranian presidential candidates so openly and directly criticized rivals. In a major departure from previous statements by Ahmadinejad, Mehdi Karroubi — a cleric who heads the moderate pro-reform National Trust Party, went as far as to say that speculating on the Holocaust would do no good to Iran.
“Ahmadinejad’s claim that the Holocaust never took place […] only serves to antagonize the west,” he said in an interview with Press TV.
He added that there were many other urgent issues facing the country and that leaders needed to deal with these rather than dwell on issues with the potential to stir up hatred.
Meantime, Mohsen Rezaie, a former member of the Revolutionary Guard considered to be a moderate conservative, announced on his website that he was running “to save the country from destruction,” a direct reference to Ahmadinejad’s failures.
Movement of the people
This year also marks a different kind of public involvement in the political scene. After the revolution, a large proportion of the population felt that the election results are not a reflection of their opinion.
Mohammad Khatami provided a glimmer of hope when he ran for president the first time that change was on the way, but in his eight years no substantive political shift seemed imminent.
Khatami had run on a platform of liberalization and reform, and during his two terms as president, he advocated free expression, tolerance and civil society, and diplomatic relations with other states including the EU. But his reformist policies repeated clashes with the hardline Islamists in the Iranian government and powerful governmental organizations like the Guardian Council.
Limited presidential terms blocked Khatami from contesting the 2005 election, and a low voter turnout — mainly through apathy — is one of the reasons Ahmadinejad prevailed.
But a bigger turnout is expected this year: Mehrangiz Kar, a prominent women’s right activist and lawyer talks of “election hyper energy” in Iran right now.
“We are seeing much more freshness in the campaigns than we ever expected,” she said. “Watching and hearing all that is happening, one cannot remain silent to what is going on.”
Ahmad Sarvi, a supporter of Mousavi, said that since the Ahmadinejad and Mousavi debate, supporters of both sides had turned to streets to challenge each other.
“The streets become almost deserted when candidates are debating on TV, and moments after, they turn into carnivals,” he says. “I was traveling from Vali Asr street to Sattari today (both main routes in Tehran), and the other side of the highway was blocked because of supporters,” he adds.
Still, others view this "energy" ephemeral and without any real meaning. According to Abdulkarim Soroush, a prominent philosopher and intellectual, elections in Iran are not the only solution to the problems. “What the media focuses more in Iran and abroad, is the fact that there is an election going on in Iran,” he says, “but does that mean that there is real democracy?”
Meantime, campaigning tactics also seem more inspired. Mousavi has adopted the term "green," which has a different connotation in Farsi than in English. The color, rather than meaning environment-friendly, symbolizes rebirth, and that is what his campaign is promising: a political rebirth. The color also carries religious weight and is typically worn by people from the Prophet Mohammad’s lineage.
Mousavi besides being a politician is a painter and architect. He has showed a soft side in political campaigning by choosing a color theme, and many across the country are obviously taken with it. International news media reporting on public rallies show thousands of Mousavi supporters swathed in the color. The Mousavi campaign has also benefited from the use of social media, like Facebook.
Iran's women weigh in
A major turning point in this campaign has been the controversial presence of Zahra Rahnavard, Mousavi's wife, who has appeared at his side at nearly all public engagements. Rahnavard was also the first woman to hold the position of chancellor of Al Zahra university in Iran.
In Iran, religious leaders and prominent figures prefer not to put their wives in the spotlight. Ahmadinejad’s wife has rarely been seen during her husband’s presidency. Even Mohammad Khatami, considered the most moderate post-Revolution president, shielded his wife from view.
A photo of Mousavi and his wife leaving a campaign talk hand in hand has raced through the media and the blogosphere in the past four weeks. The act was a statement, and others have followed. The wife of Karroubi, Fatemeh, has begun to show her support for her husband’s campaign.
Perhaps more surprising is that as women become more visible in the political arena, there’s no shortage of men eager to help.
Mousavi for one knows that by involving his wife, Rahnavard, he is winning the endorsement of a large and important population in Iran. Some gone as far as to compare her as Iran’s Michelle Obama.
“I know that women and young people in Iran are interested in my ideology and beliefs, and I am sure they will show their support,” Rahnavard recently told the BBC Persian news service.
Down to the wire
It’s very hard for analysts to predict who will win Iranian elections. In the final days of Iran's short campaign period, it is not unusual for candidates to drop out of the race. Rezai is a case in point: he vowed to contest the last election only to drop out two days before polls opened.
In the meantime, the campaign season has provided a period of political expression, and Iranians have learned not to let such an opportunity pass them by.
More on the 2009 Iranian elections:
Contribution from the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard: