By Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Mashhad
At a main crossroads in the holy city of Mashhad a blue hoarding welcomes Mohammad Khatami, Iran’s former reformist president, as the “national pride”.
However, on the eve of Mr Khatami’s rally, the centrepiece of a three-day visit to Iran’s second-biggest city designed to build support before parliamentary elections in March, his political opponents cut the electricity supply, plunging his image into gloom – which is where his opponents would like the former president to stay.
The incident illustrates the intense battle already under way ahead of the March polls. Mr Khatami has become a figurehead for reformist campaigners and has suffered the ire of fundamentalist critics – supporters of President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad included.
Despite the billboard failure, and limited publicity in the local media, Mr Khatami is welcomed by about 10,000 supporters in a sports hall in Mashhad, most of whom are under 30 years of age. “Death to the dictator, hello to Khatami,” they chant.
“If a group resorts to force . . . and deceit . . . their ruling is not [religiously] legitimate,” Mr Khatami says, using language far less moderate than he would normally. He is referring to allegations that Mr Ahmadi-Nejad enjoyed the support of the revolutionary guards, the elite military force, for his presidential victory in 2005. “The worst corruption is not to let people cast their votes freely.”
Hundreds of emboldened protesters leave the hall and file out on to the streets. “Incompetent government! Resign!” they chant.
As they face riot police, the slogans change to: “Bullets, tanks and basijis [ideologically motivated militias] are no more frightening!” The protest breaks up with no arrests.
Mr Khatami has taken a lead role in co-ordinating reformist factions to help form a joint candidate list for the elections to the 290-seat parliament. While in Mashhad, home to 3m people, he held meetings with his former officials, behaving almost like the head of a shadow government.
In the absence of effective parties, two camps – one reformist, the other fundamentalist – have been trying to attract the support of different political groups to consolidate their votes and ensure that they put up unified fronts.
A big concern for the reformists is whether their candidates – who will begin registering for the elections in early January – will be disqualified, as some 2,000 were at the last parliamentary polls in 2004. The interior ministry and the Guardian Council, the constitutional watchdog, will vet candidates for loyalty to the constitution and to Islam.
The long process, which can leave candidates waiting until a week before polling day before they know if they can stand, has made planning difficult for reformists.
Mohammad-Sadegh Javadi-Hesar, a senior reformist, says: “About 50 per cent of our concern is about disqualifications and 25 per cent about the health of elections. This means we have to rely only on a quarter of our potential [candidates].”
“Some members of the Guardian Council and government see elimination of reformist thoughts [as] a religious duty, like praying,” says one reformist.
“Our reliance is on the supreme leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei], who we hope will intervene to stop radicals.”
The greatest threat to the fundamentalists is not the qualification process but the criticism that the government has failed to curb high inflation and rising unemployment, as promised.
Analysts, anecdotally, say Mr Ahmadi-Nejad is losing public support because of rising prices, but they admit that floating voters may return to him if he offers new attractive promises.
The president’s high-profile provincial trips, criss-crossing the country offering to fund cheap loans, have been the cornerstone of his populist approach.
“The president gives money, toys and bicycles to low-income people the way caliphs were behaving centuries ago,” says Naser Amoli, a reformist. “This lets the government buy the recipients’ votes and buy time from others who hope to get the same later.”
The fundamentalists admit that reformist opponents offer a bigger challenge than four years ago, when, paradoxically, Mr Khatami was president. Javad Arian-Manesh, a fundamentalist parliamentarian from Mashhad, predicts they will win “a strong minority” but insists the fundamentalists will retain control – albeit weaker than the current 80 per cent.
Absent from the election campaign is any discussion of international tensions over Iran’s nuclear programme. Analysts say the subject is just too sensitive and not a daily concern for people worried about rising prices and unemployment.
But Gholam-Hossein Elham, a government spokesman, issued a pre-election warning: “The enemy sees elections as the way for its ‘soft activities’,” Mr Elham told election officials. “The enemy’s soft war should be foiled, a main part of which is on your shoulders.”
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007