The presidential campaign season in Iran this year started with a warning. During a visit to the city of Qom in mid-January, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told a packed crowd that both internal and external enemies may try to undermine the vote.
“Those who may offer general advice about the elections – and it could be out of compassion – that the elections should be like this or that, should take care not to further the goal of the enemy,” Khamenei said.
“They should take care not to make the people lose faith in the elections. They should not constantly say that there should be free elections. It is obvious that there should be free elections.”
That warning was followed by a series of rare public lashings and executions in cities across Iran. And in late January, a dozen journalists were arrested for allegedly being part of a network aiming to destabilize the country.
“The arrests, the beatings and the harsh sentences that have been handed down recently are all related to the election,” said Roozbeh Mirebrahimi, an Iran analyst based in New York. “The regime expects another crisis and they have cracked down in advance to reduce the impact.”
The last time Iranians voted for president in 2009, the disputed re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad led to massive street protests, put down by force in the most tumultuous period of internal unrest the 34-year-old Islamic Republic has seen.
Supporters of Ahmadinejad’s reformist opponents Mirhossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi took to the streets in what they called the “Green Movement”. Dozens of people were killed and thousands were arrested.
This time, the authorities are expected to take no chances. Moussavi and Karroubi have been under house arrest for two years, and no candidate is expected to take up their reformist banner.
Voters will most likely be offered a slate of figures loyal to Khamenei, without independent power bases that could exacerbate divisions in society.
“Khamenei wants the next president to be someone he can control,” said Mehdi Khalaji, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “He wants people who have no personal backing.”
Since the last election, life for ordinary Iranians has become more difficult, with the economy reeling from international sanctions. Prices of basic foodstuffs and fuel have risen as subsidies have been cut, while the oil exports that make up the bulk of Iran’s income have fallen dramatically.
Last week, hundreds of farmers in central Isfahan province clashed with security forces because of a government decision to divert water from their area. The clashes showed how economic disgruntlement can quickly escalate into violence as families try to deal with their financial difficulties.
Still, the elections are unlikely to be derailed. Ahmadinejad is barred from running again after two consecutive terms, and his successor is likely to be selected from among a handful of top politicians mostly known for loyalty to Khamenei.
Read more at REUTERS