For anyone with a serious knowledge of Iranian society and politics, the decisive victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran's presidential could not have come as a surprise. Widely promoted in the international press as riding a wave of popular opposition, former prime minister Mirhossein Mousavi received just 34 per cent against 63 per cent for Ahmadinejad.
It's a kind of result we're familiar with here in India: Lok Sabha 2004, UP Assembly 2007, Tamil Nadu LS poll 2009, Andhra LS LS & Assembly 2009... the list is long and no one's complaining. Many a time the eventual victor has been underreported. The same thing seems to have happened in Iran.
Even Western newspapers that denounced the election have admitted that the incumbent had strong support among urban workers and the rural poor—the vast majority of the population. Ahmadinejad has retained this constituency, despite the repressive and corrupt character of the regime, because of the absence of a socialist alternative.
Disappointed supporters, mostly young people, took to the streets, burning vehicles, torching shop fronts and clashing with riot police to vent their anger over the result. But US and Western media have generally inflated the extent of the protests and the police crackdown.
In an on-the-spot report, BBC's John Simpson breathlessly speculated on whether he was witnessing the beginning of a revolution against the regime—from a crowd that he estimated at 3,000. The Los Angeles Times reported that “huge swathes of the capital erupted in fiery riots” but went on to describe clashes involving “hundreds” of demonstrators.
On what mass base could Mousavi depend for a successful bid to unseat Ahmadinejad? His actual electoral base did not extend beyond better-off-sections of the urban middle class, university students and businessmen.
And as the candidate of the Iranian liberal establishment, he campaigned as no less an ardent defender of Islamist clerical rule than Ahmadinejad. On domestic policy, he vaguely called for more openness, while opposing Ahmadinejad’s “populist” subsidies to the urban poor and the peasantry.
The media has not sought to explain why the mass of the Iranian people should be expected to support an advocate of the same free market policies that have produced a social disaster throughout the world.
Mousavi’s most prominent backer, moreover, was Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a leading figure in the state apparatus and one of the country’s wealthiest men. Rafsanjani, notorious for his corruption, is despised by Iranian workers and the poor.
The outcome is not the “surprise” and “shock” presented in the international media. All of the candidates—the conservatives Ahmadinejad and Mohsen Rezai, and the reformers Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi—were vetted by the unelected Guardian Council and are part of the political establishment.
In the final weeks, the campaign was highly polarised around Ahmadinejad and Mousavi, who represent different factions of the ruling elite. As a result, the very low votes for two other candidates - Rezai and Karroubi - are hardly surprising.
Mousavi speaks for sections of the regime who are seeking to ease tensions with the US as a means of ending international sanctions and opening up the deteriorating Iranian economy to foreign capital. For all the fanfare of its highly-orchestrated “colour revolution”—in this case, green—Mousavi’s campaign was directed at a relatively narrow social base—the urban middle classes, particularly students and youth.
Moreover, his criticisms of Ahmadinejad’s populist policies—particularly in rural areas—would only have alienated broad layers of the working class and rural poor, who, while discontented over rising unemployment and soaring inflation, would hardly welcome the tougher austerity measures advocated by the “reformers”.
Those suspicions would have been reinforced by the support for Mousavi from two former presidents—Mohammad Khatami and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Ahmadinejad won an upset victory the 2005 presidential elections by capitalising on the widespread anger among working people over the impact of Khatami’s free market agenda from 1997 and 2005.
He soundly defeated Rafsanjani in the second round in 2005 by promising to put the country’s oil revenues on people’s tables and inveighing against corruption. Rafsanjani, one of the country’s wealthiest men, is widely regarded as a crooked politician.
In the course of this campaign, Ahmadinejad again seized on Rafsanjani’s alleged corruption to posture as a defender of the poor against the wealthy, corrupt elite and to deflect attention from his own economic record.
While boosting Mousavi’s campaign, various Western commentators acknowledged that Ahmadinejad, who was previously mayor of Tehran, had a substantial base among the urban poor and in the rural areas.
A class divide was evident in the reaction in the capital to the election outcome. Young protesters took to the streets in the more affluent northern and north-eastern suburbs. But as the New York Times noted, “the working-class areas of southern Tehran where Mr Ahmadinejad is popular were largely quiet, despite rumours of wild victory celebrations.”
The reaction suggests that significant sections of working people, in rural and urban areas, voted for Ahmadinejad. Their distrust will only have been confirmed by the barely concealed class contempt of Mousavi and his backers for the “ignorance” and “backwardness” of Ahmadinejad’s poorer supporters.