TEHRAN, (Reuters) – Iran’s anti-Western President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad faces the first test of his popularity since coming to power 16 months ago with elections on Friday for local councils and a powerful clerical assembly.
The former Revolutionary Guardsman, who sparked fresh international outcry this week by hosting a conference questioning the Holocaust and by predicting Israel’s imminent demise, hopes the vote will consolidate his grip on power.
But reformists, driven from elected posts in a series of elections since 2003 by conservatives allied to Ahmadinejad, are betting high voter turnout and disenchantment with rising prices for basic goods will spark a reversal in their fortunes.
A key barometer will be whether reformists can regain seats on Tehran’s city council. Analysts say a divided council is the most likely result. “Ahmadinejad has given promises to lower income people to improve their economic situation … (but) there is a gap between what was said and what has been done,” said Abdolvahed Mousavi-Lari, a former reformist interior minister.
Mousavi-Lari, who is masterminding the reformist campaign, told Reuters a higher turnout would work in reformists’ favour.
Anger at the spiralling cost of living in the world’s fourth largest oil exporter is running high in the capital Tehran, although many say it is too soon to blame Ahmadinejad. “We can’t afford even to buy fruit or to live in the city because rents are so high,” said labourer Ali Nourzadeh, 39.
Like many interviewed on Wednesday, Nourzadeh said he knew too little about the candidates and would not vote.
Iran’s 46.5 million eligible voters will have the chance to choose between around 233,000 candidates for more than 113,000 city and rural council posts.
Simultaneous elections are also being held for the 86-member Assembly of Experts, an elite group of Shi’ite Muslim clerics who have the power to elect, dismiss and supervise Iran’s most powerful figure, the supreme leader. Most reformists have been barred by a conservative panel that vets hopefuls.
In the Tehran council race, conservatives are split over who should be mayor of the city of 12 million people.
Allies of Ahmadinejad, himself Tehran mayor for two years before becoming president, are determined to oust current mayor Mahammad Baqer Qalibaf, a former national police chief and a losing candidate in the 2005 presidential elections. “Ahmadinejad sees Qalibaf as a potential rival in future and he also thinks he is too close to reformist-thinking,” said a political analyst, who did not want to be named.
Ahmadinejad allies, who have christened their movement “The Pleasant Scent of Servitude”, face reformists whose list includes a former vice president and a taekwondo champion.
Another clash of personalities has enlivened the Assembly of Experts vote where firebrand cleric Ayatollah Moahmmad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, a close ally of Ahmadinejad, is viewed by reformists as leading a hardline power grab. “We should try to prevent … this extremist group from controlling the assembly,” said Mousavi-Lari.
Most analysts say Mesbah-Yazdi and his allies lack the candidate numbers and support to gain control of the assembly, which will likely remain dominated by more moderate conservatives who have kept the body out of day-to-day politics.