From Kurdistan to Tehran: the urban-rural divide as Iranians turn out to vote

As excitement mounts leading to Friday’s parliamentary elections, a palpable difference in priorities is emerging, as it often does, between voters in Iran’s urban areas and its provinces. Unlike in Tehran, voters and campaign activists in the suburbs and rural areas are engaged in discussions that diverge sharply from their fellow countrymen in the capital.

While provincial voters are primarily concerned with practical issues related to rural development and ethnic and kinship affiliations, urbanites are often drawn into the kind of political and ideological discourse that makes national headlines – a never-ending battle of reformists, principlists, moderates, and everything in between.

Farshad, a campaign organizer for a Kurdish candidate in Kermanshah province, has studied in Tehran and experienced the urban-rural contrast firsthand.

A green and orange public phone with a campaign sticker.
A green and orange public phone with a campaign sticker. Photograph: Scott Peterson/Getty Images

“People here are not subject to the forces of national politics,” says Farshad of the political environment in the Kermanshah district his candidate is hoping to seize. “Elections in big cities, especially in Tehran, are subject to the political situation – how open or closed the political environment is.” He adds: “Instead of our demands being political, the demands here are more local.”

Voters are concerned with economic development, Farshad says of Kermanshah’s electorate. “Instead of looking for a representative who ascribes to a certain political discourse, they’re more interested in someone who’s going to bring about welfare, development, and better services.”

For Mona, who lives in Tehran but is originally from Kermanshah, demands are more tangible in her home province. She says it’s important Kermanshah’s winning candidate should support the right to teach in her mother tongue, Kurdish, as opposed to Iran’s national language, Persian. “It really matters to me who represents [my] region because we have some specific unique issues,” she says, noting she plans to depart Tehran, and its reformist-principlist cacophony, and cast her ballot back home.

A couple waits for a bus on Vali Asr Avenue in Tehran.
A couple waits for a bus on Vali Asr Avenue in Tehran. Photograph: Scott Peterson/Getty Images

In one sense, demands in Kermanshah have changed since the 1979 revolution, when citizens supported lawmakers promising to expand access to basic necessities like water, gas and electricity, says Farshad. Today, in a marked shift, pleas for expanded internet access have joined the ranks of those basic needs, Farshad claims.

“Internet, though it wasn’t a serious need at first, is today part and parcel of Iranians’ lives,” he adds. “Even in remote villages and towns, people are using the internet frequently…Both the literate and the illiterate, they’re all users of social networks.”

In that respect, the Kermanshah electorate shares the same interests as its Tehran counterpart. Throughout the country, much of the pre-election discussion is taking place on Telegram, Iran’s most popular messaging app. Back in Tehran, where factional political rivalries continue to rage, the reformists have leveraged Telegram to conduct their campaigns to make up for their lack of access to funds and broadcast media outlets, which are controlled by Iran’s conservatives.

An Iranian couple chats on a street corner in downtown Tehran.
An Iranian couple chats on a street corner in downtown Tehran. Photograph: Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images

A view from Tehran

Reformists usually draw the largest crowds among the capital’s urban dwellers, discussing jobs, women’s issues and social liberalization. Occasionally, if the political weather permits, candidates make veiled references to the continued house arrest of Green Movement leaders to rile supporters. But after Iran’s major vetting body, the Guardian Council, disqualified most major reformist candidates in the run-up to Friday’s election, reformists have centered on whipping up excitement to maximize voter turnout. In turn, they hope to exert as much influence as possible on the Iranian parliament’s political makeup for the next four years.

With the focus on getting the vote out, the leader of the movement, former reformist president Mohammad Khatami, released a video message urging Iranians to vote for the reformists’ main candidate lists – or what little remains of them. That message was bolstered by pro-reform intellectual Sadegh Zibakalam, a popular figure among young Iranians.

A boy stands in front of electoral posters in downtown Tehran.
A boy stands in front of electoral posters in downtown Tehran. Photograph: Xinhua / Barcroft Media

“Let’s vote so [candidates] don’t enter the parliament with only 300,000 votes,” Zibakalam urged in a video posted to Aparat, the Iranian YouTube equivalent, referring to 2012, when many pro-reform voters boycotted the election to protest the mass disqualification of their candidates. The low turnout enabled MPs to get into parliament with as little as 300,000 votes, when Tehran had roughly six million eligible voters.

“Turnout will be higher than the last parliamentary election,” predicts Mehdi, a reformist activist in Tehran. “After 2012 and the subsequent election of [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani, the people who previously boycotted saw the impact of turning out.” Mehdi says he’s noticing a significant shift in his immediate social circles, claiming that 70-80% more of his friends will be voting in this election compared to four years ago. “Only one or two are against voting,” he says.

Election campaigning in Tehran. Photograph: SIPA/REX/Shutterstock

But Mehdi added that the disillusioning political developments of the past decade would likely prevent voters from participating in the same euphoric droves as in the 2000 election of the Islamic Republic’s sixth parliament, the only time reformists weren’t disqualified en masse by the Guardian Council.

Political parties in the western sense do not exist in Iran. Instead, voters choose between lists of various “movements,” or “political suggestions,” says Mehdi, prioritizing the factions that feature recognizable candidates. Now, many voters feel the Guardian Council’s vetting mechanisms have limited their choices to candidates that, while officially running as reformists, may in fact be conservatives with only token reformist tendencies.

Since most known reformist figures have been eliminated from the race, pro-reform voters have been relegated to “second and third-tier reformists” who have been re-qualified by the Guardian Council, Mehdi says. In some cases, they include political wildcards like incumbent candidate Ali Motahari, who opposes the reformists’ social agenda but whose conservative roots have allowed him to be more outspoken than any other government official on key issues, like the release of Iran’s opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi.

 Source: The Guardian. Date: February 26 2016