TEHRAN, Iran — Opponents of Iran's hard-line president have accused him of trying to buy votes before the June presidential election by handing out checks and free vegetables to the poor.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government has defended the payments, saying the checks for 500,000 and 1 million rials _ about $50 and $100 _ have nothing to do with the election. But the president's critics have seized on the them as another opening to exploit one of his biggest vulnerabilities heading into the June 12 vote _ discontent over his handling of the faltering economy.
The government has been distributing the money to poor families _ most of them in rural areas and small towns _ since last year, and in recent weeks it broadened the distribution to include students and teachers. It also announced that on May 10 it began making $80 payments to 5.5 million people in rural areas throughout Iran.
Ahmadinejad's opponents accuse him of using the cash to win votes from people hit hard by rising inflation and unemployment.
"Attempting to win people's vote through dispensing public assets is a dangerous phenomenon employed for the first time (by Ahmadinejad's government)," said a statement Tuesday by a reformist party called the Islamic Revolution Mujahedeen Organization.
Mohammad Reza Khatami, a former deputy parliament speaker, said, "Ahmadinejad's government has no plan for the country other than handing out checks for $100."
Ahmadinejad, who comes from a poor background himself, was elected in 2005 on a populist platform that promised to share Iran's oil revenues with every family, eradicate poverty and lower unemployment. Officials accompanying him on his trips around Iran began handing out cash last year to citizens appealing for financial help.
Politicians on both sides of the country's reformist-conservative political divide have said such payments promote a "begging culture."
The one conservative candidate challenging Ahmadinejad's re-election bid, Mohsen Rezaei, said the president should create jobs for young people rather than doling out money to them from state funds.
"Don't hand out cash to the youth. Give them jobs with good income," he said in comments posted on his Web site on Monday. "The current economic conditions are harming the dignity of Iranians."
Iran's reformists, who seek an easing of social and political restrictions at home and better ties with the West, see a strong opportunity to spoil Ahmadinejad's re-election chances. One of their main arguments has been that Ahmadinejad spends too much time slamming the U.S. and Israel and not enough time trying to fix the economy.
The leading reformist candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, said the latest payments are an affront to the dignity of Iranians on "the eve of an election." He said the money would be better spent by putting it into infrastructure projects.
The reformist daily Etemad-e-Melli, or National Confidence, said students protested the distribution of $50 checks at a university dormitory in Tehran on Sunday because they found them insulting. The semiofficial Mehr news agency, however, quoted Tehran University dean Farhad Rahbar as saying the students were angry because they wanted more money than the government was offering.
Ahmadinejad advisers also handed out $50 checks to female students when the president visited their dormitory in March. The government characterized the payments as a gift from the president for Nowruz, the Persian new year.
In recent weeks, the government has also distributed free potatoes in small towns.
Students at a campaign event for Mousavi in the central town of Yazd on Monday chanted, "We don't want a potato government" and "Death to potatoes," a play on the "Death to America" slogan common at rallies by hard-liners.
The government said the potatoes had nothing to do with election, saying it was a choice between distributing them or letting them rot.