Thursday, June 16, 2005

Iran Pulls Out the Stops to Woo Voters

Iran Pulls Out the Stops to Woo Voters: "June 16, 2005 latimes.com :

THE WORLD
Iran Pulls Out the Stops to Woo Voters
Regime, fearful of a low turnout, turns a blind eye as presidential aspirants use frowned-upon music, images and individuals in campaign.

By Nahid Siamdoust, Special to The Times


TEHRAN — On stage, a five-man band plays Persian music written by expatriates in Los Angeles, prompting half a dozen young men to dance in front of about 50 supporters of presidential candidate Hashemi Rafsanjani.

"This is illegal music," said Atieh Badindeh, 20, a campaign worker, "but to attract young people's votes we have permission from Mr. Rafsanjani personally to play it here tonight."

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Campaigning for Iran's presidential election Friday ends this morning, and the seven candidates are scrambling to win over those who are still undecided about whether, much less for whom, to vote.

"The elections have never been as unpredictable in Iran," said Hossein Derakhshan, an observer of Iranian politics who has a Web log called "Editor: Myself." "In the past, there has always been a clear front-runner, or two competing with each other."

Polls show 70-year-old Rafsanjani, a cleric and former president, leading, but such surveys have proved to be unreliable.

In a bid to win supporters, especially among the estimated 30 million young voters who make up the majority of Iran's 48-million-strong registered electorate, even some old-guard conservatives are sounding more like reformists in speech as well as advertising methods.

Before dropping out of the race Wednesday, Mohsen Rezai, a former commander of Iran's hard-line Revolutionary Guard, promised in his campaign posters a "Government of Love."

Their designer, Said Samadi, said the posters were meant to conjure an image of a united Iran, where friendship and pleasure prevail. Indeed, there wasn't the slightest indication of Rezai's military past on his posters.

Iran has come a long way since the days when Rezai's militiamen used fear and intimidation to protect Iran's Islamic identity, arresting citizens for as little as a music tape in their car or, in the case of women, a few strands of exposed hair or chips of color on their nails.

Now, more than a quarter-century later, most of Iran's 70 million people are too young to remember the Islamic Revolution, and educational and job opportunities are too few for them to be easily enticed by religious or revolutionary slogans. This year citizens as young as 15 can cast ballots.

"What the youth of today looks for is a better material life," said Namdar Sedaghat, an official at the campaign headquarters of Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf, who recently resigned from his post as national police chief to run in the election.

"Joy is important in our campaign material," said Sedaghat, referring to large Qalibaf canvases around Tehran that show cheering young Iranian soccer fans with faces painted in white, red and green, the colors of the Iranian flag.

But as one incredulous young man pointed out: "When Qalibaf was police chief, the police wouldn't let fans with painted faces enter the soccer stadium!"

The 21-year-old medical student, Mohammed-Reza Shalbafan, added: "The Iranian electorate is too smart for tricks. But then again, some of today's advertising might even outsmart them."

Qalibaf's campaign methods have attracted unlikely supporters. Passing out Qalibaf fliers on a street north of the trendy Mohseni Square was 27-year-old political science student Shahrzad Khabaha. She voted twice before for the current reformist president, Mohammed Khatami, but said she had been persuaded by a friend to help in Qalibaf's campaign.

"I have seen how well Qalibaf has reformed the country's police. He established the women's police force, something no one cared enough to do. He has proved to be an excellent manager, and that is what the country needs right now," said Khabaha, puffing on a cigarette, a sight rarely seen among women in public here.

Farther up Jordan Street, a boulevard where young men and women wearing the latest fads cruise and pass phone numbers through car windows, a disco light showered the dusk with multicolor dots.

Underneath, a sidewalk stereo blared, "Now Hashemi has come. He has come to bring love and unity," set to pop music.

Youths stopped traffic, handed out peanuts and slapped "HASHEMI 2005" stickers on passing cars, sometimes in spite of the drivers' protests. Above them, a large canvas strapped on a metal structure showed a young voter with long hair and a goatee with the candidate's sticker on his forehead, holding a picture of Rafsanjani in one hand and flashing a victory sign with the other.

The banner bears an uncanny resemblance to a photograph of a demonstrator during student uprisings in 1999 demanding greater freedom and democracy."