Iran Election: Reformers Gain Momentum in Final Days of Campaign

With three days of campaigning left, Iran's presidential election suddenly gets interesting

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Newsha Tavakolian / Polaris for TIME

Yasaman Karimi, 23, supporter of Iranian reformist presidential candidate Mohammad Reza Aref at Hejab stadium in Tehran. Aref quit the race on June 11, 2013

It’s not very often that a presidential candidate, four days before an election, enters a stadium to thunderous cheers, only to announce that this time tomorrow he may no longer be in the race. But instead of a stunned silence, the 5,000-strong crowd, gathered in a sports arena in central Tehran to rally around reformist Mohammad Reza Aref, exploded with joy, cheering, whistling and stomping so hard that even the walls vibrated. This was the news that left-leaning voters in Iran’s presidential election, slated for June 14, had long been waiting for. Even as Aref took the podium to speak, the crowd erupted in a chant calling for Aref and fellow moderate Hassan Rowhani to form an alliance, staving off a potential split in the liberal vote. “Without a coalition, Aref or Rowhani can’t win,” says 23-year-old law student Yasaman Karimi. “They are the only ones who give us hope for a better Iran.”

As promised, Aref formally stepped down on Tuesday in favor of Rowhani. The buzz has energized what started as a somnolent election between eight little-known candidates vetted by Iran’s Guardian Council, a powerful group of senior hard-line clerics. On Monday, a conservative candidate announced his withdrawal as well. The remaining candidates, now down to six, have less than three days to woo voters and get their messages out. What once seemed an exercise in picking the least-worst option has turned into something resembling a real race. Polling doesn’t really exist in Iran, but two hard-liners are considered to be in the lead: secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council and chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, who is perceived to be Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s preferred candidate, and Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, who, as successor to now President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Tehran’s mayor, can point to eight years successfully running the capital as proof that he at least has leadership abilities. Rowhani, the only cleric in the running, has assumed the moderate mantle and can expect to do well with the liberal and youth vote. Almost by default he has become the reformist candidate, not so much for his liberal credentials, but because he stayed in place when the rest of the field shifted to the right.

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Slogans and campaign promises — to eliminate poverty, to promote Islam, to improve the economy and to bring jobs — are the same across the board. And while reform-leaning liberals want Rowhani to win because they believe that he will promote more personal freedoms — the degree to which women should cover their heads to stay in line with Islamic teachings, for example, or how much unmarried men and women are permitted to interact — the big issue in this election is sanctions and how candidates will deal with negotiations with the West on the topic of Iran’s nuclear program. Across the spectrum, from Jalili on the far right to Rowhani on the just right of center, candidates have sworn they will never compromise Iran’s right to pursue peaceful nuclear enrichment. Amin Rashidi, a 20-year-old clothes salesman, hasn’t yet been able to make up his mind who will best do the job. “We need a President who can get the sanctions lifted, but who can protect Iran’s nuclear ambitions,” he says. Where the candidates differ is in terms of approach. Conservatives, like Jalili, have sworn off negotiations until the West makes concessions. Rowhani says negotiations will continue, as long as Iran can continue with its nuclear program. This is an election where the differences between candidates can be best measured in degrees of diplomatic tact and how many inches of hair are allowed to peek out from under a woman’s headscarf before drawing the wrath of the religious police.

For most Iranian voters, the biggest concern is the economy. Inflation has tripled or even quadrupled the cost of basic food items, jobs are becoming harder to find and the Iranian currency’s pummeling on the international money exchange has made imported items, from tampons to electronics, prohibitively expensive. Sanctions are in part to blame for the economic situation, but according to numerous Tehranis interviewed in the affluent north of the capital, in the working-class southern neighborhoods, in bazaars, on the street and in the central train station, there is one clear cause of the economic malaise: government mismanagement.

That could give Mohsen Rezaei, a former economist, an edge. Iranians want to see what’s left of the economy under better management. Many at Rezaei’s Monday rally, a cringe-worthy event held at a wrestling arena that still carried the aroma of sweat and new rubber flooring, said that was why they planned to vote for him. But his presentation — think Eurovision tryouts, complete with booming techno music and some 1,500 attendees decked out in the campaign’s garish turquoise hue — lacked substance. His program, he assured the audience, would eliminate poverty, reduce the number of prisoners and rid the country of thieves. But he didn’t say how he would do any of this. Instead he took the “Do you feel lucky?” approach, promising a “big surprise” come election day.

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Not everyone at the rally was willing to take the gamble. “I’m not voting for anyone,” grumbled graduate student Mohammad, who only gave his first name. “It won’t make a difference.” In the last presidential election, in 2009, Mohammad voted for reform candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi. When Mousavi, a hugely popular opposition candidate, lost to incumbent Ahmadinejad, millions from his Green Movement took to the streets to protest what they said was widespread fraud. The protests led to a brutal police crackdown that saw thousands imprisoned, beaten and tear-gassed, and scores killed. Mousavi and another reform candidate are still under house arrest. Mohammad believes that, like the last one, the outcome of this election has already been decided. Like many dissidents, he calls this a “selection, not an election.” So why did he bother showing up at a campaign rally? He grinned, bopping his head to the heavy beat coming out of the loudspeakers. “I am here to dance. This is the best disco in town,” he jokes. Dance clubs are forbidden in Iran, just one of the stifling personal-freedom laws that so irk many young people in the country.

Across town the Aref rally was just getting started. Many young Tehranis eager for a few more of those personal freedoms attended the rally. No one would go so far as to demand a mixed dance club, but less harassment from the religious police, the ones who monitor flirting couples, hemlines and the amount of hair peeking from a headscarf, would be a start. “Let me wear my hijab the way I want,” says Fazane Rafiee, a 26-year-old architect, referring to the mandatory head covering, when asked what she wanted from a candidate. She did not get her wish at the rally, even though Aref is — or was — the most moderate candidate. The moment Rafiee’s headscarf slipped behind her ears she was chastised by a campaign volunteer who frantically mimed over the roar of the crowd for her to put it back up. The volunteer pointed to the television cameras trained on the women’s section, and then back to Rafiee’s scandalously askew hijab. “We don’t want to cause any problems,” she mouthed. The moderates, already derided by religious conservatives for flouting tradition, know that they must toe the line — footage of women attending Aref or Rowhani rallies with their hair showing could damage the more moderate candidates.

Rafiee also voted for Mousavi in the last election, and she is doubtful that Rowhani will make much of a reformer. After all, he condemned the protests in 2009. But voting for Rowhani, she says, is the best defense against a Jalili win. Jalili as President would take the country to a dark place she says — with more sanctions, more suffering, and less freedoms. “I have nightmares about Jalili winning,” she says. Then, after a pause, and a pointed question about where I am from — the U.S. — she says: “You should too.”

As Aref left the podium, the chanting crowd segued into a familiar slogan — the reform chants of Mousavi’s Green Movement. Rafiee, who had been punching the air with one arm and waving a V sign with the other, looked up in alarm. “That is forbidden,” she whispers. Seconds later, the campaign volunteers were at the front of every section, desperately tamping down the pro-Mousavi chants. “If that is caught on video, it could make big problems for the campaign,” says Rafiee. “We can’t seem like we are the Mousavi people.” Then she lifted he voice again, joining a new chant, this one calling for the long life of Rowhani and Aref.

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