In Iran’s election, the battle is between rich and poor

Sunday 07/05/2017
Populist politics. Iranian conservative presidential candidate Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf delivers a speech during a campaign rally in Tehran, on May 2. (AFP)

London - In the first televised debate featuring Iran’s six presiden­tial election candidates, Ebra­him Raeisi promised to triple subsidies going to the poorest Iranians and argued Iran had a ris­ing Gini coefficient, a measure of income and wealth distribution.

Raeisi, a cleric who leads the vast foundation managing the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad, hoped to present himself as a savvy techno­crat as well as a humble man of the people.

Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagh­er Ghalibaf likewise described him­self as the candidate of the “96% against the 4%,” promising month­ly cash handouts of 2.5 million rials — $77 — for any unemployed Iranian aged 18 or older.

Both Raeisi and Ghalibaf — the two main challengers to Iranian President Hassan Rohani from the principlist, or fundamentalist, camp — seek to tap into dissatisfac­tion at the limited bounce in the economy since international sanc­tions eased after Iran’s 2015 deal with US-led world powers limiting its nuclear programme.

Of course, Iran is not unique in having a gap between rich and poor. Earlier this year, a report from the World Economic Forum, collating views from 700 “experts,” identi­fied rising inequality in income and wealth as the main factor — along with climate change — likely to shape the world in the next decade.

Widening disparities, the re­port argued, had not only fuelled populist politics such as the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the Euro­pean Union and Donald Trump’s US presidential victory but also posed a risk to the world economic order.

Iranians’ attitude to wealth and inequality are shaped, firstly, by Iran’s possession of the world’s largest combined hydrocarbon re­serves — 158 billion barrels of oil and 34 trillion cubic metres of natu­ral gas. This gives them a strong sense they are living in an affluent country.

Secondly, the Islamic Republic took egalitarianism from Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of Iran’s 1979 revolution, who pitted the mo­stazafin (“dispossessed”) against the mostakberin (“oppressors”) and even the zagheh-neshinha (“slum-dwellers”) against the kakh-neshin­ha (“palace-dwellers”). Hence the republic has widened educational opportunities and improved rural development.

But this has encouraged politi­cians to pander to Iranians’ sense that wealth is somehow tainted, as seen in Raeisi calling himself a “mazloom.” “Being a mazloom, or victim, echoes Imam Khomeini’s words,” said Elham Gheytanchi, professor of sociology at Santa Monica College. “You can lead a revolutionary nation only if you are a victim yourself.”

In an Iranpoll survey in April, 42% of respondents cited unemploy­ment as the most important issue in the election, which is scheduled for May 19. Officially, Iran has 11% un­employment but many economists say it is higher.

“The main issue is the economy, specifically unemployment, and its management,” said Farideh Farhi of the University of Hawaii.

“International relations will fac­tor with the charge against Rohani that he relies too much on foreign investment and isn’t doing enough for the ‘resistance economy.’ Re­gional turmoil and instability will also factor, with Rohani emphasis­ing the need for continuity, stability and prudent diplomacy.”

The principlist camp has long criti­cised high salaries of technocrats close to rohani’s government. Both ghalibaf and raeisi well remember mahmoud ahmadinejad’s 2005 presi­dential election victory on the slogan of “putting the oil wealth on the sof­reh,” a reference to the mat that the poorer iranians sit on to eat dinner.

Not that offering inducements to voters has been confined to the prin­ciplists. In the 2005 election, reform­ist mehdi karrubi promised a monthly cash handout of 500,000 rials — then about $77 — to all iranians aged 15 or over. The political class scoffed but karrubi came in third, ahead of the main reformist candidate who was promising social freedom and politi­cal reform.

Hence successive governments and parliaments have diverted ener­gy revenues into popular short-term palliatives, like subsidising medi­cines and fuel, rather than into the productive investment that would produce sustainable long-term growth.

The unpalatable truth is that any iranian president needs to make unpopular choices — defer­ring short-term gain for longer term prosperity — even if these are hard to present to voters.

Iranians may like the idea of the self-sufficient “resistance economy” beloved by supreme leader ayatollah ali khamenei but iran needs foreign investment and imported technolo­gy to develop its energy reserves and provide the 8% economic growth that would provide jobs for record numbers entering the labour market.

Rohani has chosen this course and the iranpoll suggests he has made headway, despite bellicose noises from the trump administration: iran­poll found 55% of those asked said they thought rohani was the candi­date most likely to “improve foreign relations,” a percentage way ahead of his rivals.

But to win a second term, rohani must communicate this message rather than just argue with other can­didates over who would be the best manager or compete with them in making promises to the poor.

Rohani will lose if the election be­comes a populist contest rallying slum-dwellers against palace-dwell­ers.