Saturday, June 11, 2005 / Middle East & Africa - Islamic virtue takes a back seat on Iran's new-look campaign trail / Middle East & Africa - Islamic virtue takes a back seat on Iran's new-look campaign trail: "Islamic virtue takes a back seat on Iran's new-look campaign trail
By Najmeh Bozorgmehr and Gareth Smyth
Published: June 11 2005 03:00 | Last updated: June 11 2005 03:00

The confident, rugged pilot prepares the passengerairline for take-off as themorning sun glints in thecockpit glass. "Fuel check," he commands, as light techno music builds up pre-flight excitement.

It could be a Hollywood movie, but instead it's a campaign video for Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, the 43-year-old former national police chief running in Iran's presidential election as a conservative moderniser.

Mr Qalibaf's approach is the slickest of the eight candidates contesting the June 17 poll. Although five are from the conservative camp, most are running campaigns that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the often stern-faced founder of the Islamic Republic in 1979, might struggle to recognise.

Slogans exhort nationalism - always strong in Iran, but reinforced after the country's football team beat Bahrain on Wednesday to qualify for next summer's World Cup.

No one speaks of confronting the "Great Satan" (a euphemism for the US). Islamic virtue takes a back seat to images of smiling women and youngish technocrats.

Candidates promise better economic management and to listen to young people. Iran's minimum voting age is 16, and political organisers are well aware half the 68m population is under 25. "The same young people who were once considered problems are now the source of votes," wrote Mohammad Qouchani, a prominent journalist in Shargh, the reformist newspaper. "Even groups notorious for opposing development and democracy have realised there is no other way to attract people's votes."

Not everyone agrees. Jomhuri-ye Eslami, the rightwing newspaper, warned this week that slogans and posters were ignoring "revolutionary values" and reminded candidates "they owe their position to Islam, the Revolution and the people".

But Ali Larijani, a conservative hopeful, is running on the slogan "Fresh Air with a Government of Hope" - just eight years after he backed a fellow conservative on a ticket of "Melting in Velayat-e Faqih"; in other words, unconditional obedience to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Informal polls suggest the election will go to a second round because no candidate will gain the 50 per cent needed to win on June 17. And this unpredictability is stimulating competition, even if a low turn-out is likely. Candidates have also learned lessons from 1997 and 2001, when the reformist Mohammad Khatami won landslide victories that many analysts said was helped by his winning smile and appeal to women. But Mr Khatami has admitted that he has not met people's expectations for reform of the Islamic system and to having floundered in the face of hardliners who control decision-making.

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani - the 71-year-old cleric, former president and stalwart of the revolution - has re-energised himself as a prophet of dialogue with the west and social freedom at home.

Trendy young people in northern Tehran have pasted "Hashemi" stickers on their imported four-wheel drives, and girls in tight Islamic covering and "Hashemi" headbands have been scooting through parks on roller-skates.

The outside world is used to seeing Iran in terms of dramatic clashes: reformists against conservatives, and secularism against Islam.

But the 2005 presidential election shows a subtle process of change. This election is as much a contest between hardline and more moderate conservatives as a competition between conservatives and reformists.

"If a candidate tries to escape from democracy and shows toughness, it won't work," said Hamid-Reza Jalaei-Pour, a sociology professor at Tehran university.

For the first time in Iran, there is a candidate clearly running for a party. Mostafa Moein, a reformist contender, was chosen by Mosharekat, the main reformist group. In a reality check to polished electioneering, Dr Moein appeared on Wednesday on state television in an interview with Saeed Hajjarian, the leading reformist journalist partially paralysed by an assassination attempt by Islamic vigilantes in 2000.

"You are an example to our young," Dr Moein told Mr Hajjarian, whose questions were run as subtitles because of his slurred speech.

But just a week before the election, candidates are struggling to motivate a disillusioned electorate. Iranians are sceptical about politics and politicians' promises after wearying years of revolution, high unemployment and inflation, and Mr Khatami's battles with unelected state institutions. "Not even all the changes in the way of campaigning may be enough to make people vote," says Mr Jalaei-Pour. "We have had 25 years of sloganeering, so now it's very difficult to fool Iranians.""