Iran's presidential candidates are becoming increasingly hostile as polling day (12 June) draws near. This is the first year that televised election debates between the President and his challengers have been aired inside Iran. The conservative Mohsen Rezai last night accused President Ahmadinejad of isolating himself from his natural allies inside the country and told him that a continuation of his presidency would mean 'grave and irreversible danger' for Iran.
The extraordinarily tense and candid 90-minute live debates have reportedly been watched by some 50 million people across Iran and have seen supporters of the candidates pour on to the streets after transmission. Impromptu rallies are becoming increasingly common. (See amateur footage of a reportedly spontaneous gathering in Tehran's Vali-Asr Square at which supporters of Mir-Hossein Mousavi can be seen chanting a wishful 'Bye Bye Ahmadinejad'.)
Ahmadinejad's main challenger in the race is Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who has come with pledges of improved civil liberties and 'freedom of speech'. He has vowed to fight against discriminatory laws against women and to bring about 'an end to censorship laws'. He has accused the President of taking Iran towards a 'dictatorship' with foreign and economic policies that have 'endangered' the country. For the last four years Ahmadinejad has continued loudly to predict that 'Israel, France and the US are on the verge of collapse', said Mousavi, who asked how Iran's foreign policy could succeed when based on such 'delusions'.
In the 6 June debate between Ahmadinejad and 'reformist' Mehdi Karroubi, the President tried to blind the audience with science, showing a series of colourful charts and stating that Iran has seen a period of growth during his tenure, with at 'below 15 per cent'. Karroubi replied: 'The Central Bank says inflation is 25 per cent and you work it out at 14 per cent... I've not just arrived from the wilderness... even my late-beloved "Naneh" [grandmother] has felt the rising prices'. Karroubi reminded the President of the famous story about the satirical 13th-century Mullah Nasreddin, who had claimed that he stood at the centre of the universe. Anyone who doubted Ahmadinejad's statement should start measuring and then they would see the truth.
The President has been under pressure to account for $1 billion 'missing' from the country's currency reserves, which he has simply tried to explain away as an 'accounting error'. This has left many unconvinced and asking more questions. But, undeterred, Ahmadinejad has promoted himself throughout his campaign as a man who lives humbly and is up against corrupt establishment figures.
Oil accounts for over 80 per cent of government revenue and high prices that reached $150 a barrel last summer enabled the President to give out a string of inflationary yet populist handouts. The price of oil has since plummeted to around $60, leading to a depletion of national reserves; while unemployment and inflation continue to rise. Yet the Government, unabashed, has announced a 15-25-per-cent rise in the wages of all civil servants, while many others, such as university students and nurses, are receiving cash bonuses. On top of this, 11 million pensioners, 5.5 million disadvantaged people and all teachers are to receive $80 worth each of 'justice shares'.
Iran's former top nuclear negotiator, Hasan Rowhani, has described such 'generosity' on the eve of the election from a Government facing a budget deficit as 'unprecedented' and no different to 'buying votes'.
On Friday we'll know if Ahmadinejad's gamble with the public finances has paid off.
For more background on Iran see New Internationalist 398