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Public Opinion in Tehran: Can Iran's Presidential Elections Influence Change?

Iran's president is responsible for the country's foreign and domestic economic policies, and manages daily political affairs with his departmental ministers. He does not, however, establish the guidelines of Iran's domestic and foreign policies, nor does he have command over the security services and armed forces[1]. These powers remain in the hands of the Supreme Leader, who is appointed for life by the Assembly of Experts. Nevertheless, many policymakers in Washington still believe that Iran's 10th presidential election might affect their response to U.S. overtures.

Despite a limited mandate, the president is still the second most powerful official in Iran. By implementing greater social and political freedoms inside the country, the reformist platform can begin a public debate on the direction of the country's domestic and foreign policies. Freedoms of speech and of the press are important aspects in which the president has had relative influence in the past.

Presidential elections in Iran present an opportunity for the public to voice its opinion on the general direction in which the country is headed. In an effort to prove the regime's illegitimacy, some pro-democracy and reform-minded individuals, including Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, will inevitably boycott the election again this year. The problem with boycotting Iranian elections, however, is that it is more likely to worsen the situation, as proven by the 9th presidential election.

Roughly 80% of eligible voters participated in the 1997 election that brought reformist candidate Mohammad Khatami to power. Disillusioned by Khatami's inability to implement real change, many students abstained from the 2005 election that brought Ahmadinejad to power. Most people now realize that boycotting elections is unlikely to improve the political and social conditions.

Many experts correctly assess the volatility of Iranian presidential elections; however, certain assessments can still be made based on past elections and the current social, political, and economic conditions. A high voter turnout, for instance, would decrease Ahmadinejad's chances of re-election. Reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi and his wife appear to be driving an effective campaign so far, with the backing of Khatami, ethnic and religious minorities, and a majority of the youth. Mehdi Karoubi, another reformist, also has a decent base of support, despite rumors that he might yet withdraw from the race to unite the reformists under Mousavi. Ex-chief of the Revolutionary Guards Corps Mohsen Rezai's chances are low but he may be able to draw conservative votes away from Ahamadinejad.

The majority of the student population will most likely vote for a reformist candidate. Despite the regime's propaganda, only a small minority of the student population actually supports Ahmadinejad. Most -- if not all -- of these students belong to the paramilitary Basij force. Ahmadinejad generally enjoys the support of the fundamentalists and the less educated lower classes.

With the current economic situation, increased social restrictions, and decreased political freedoms, most of Iran's youth have realized that boycotting elections is no longer a viable option. Although many still have doubts about the reformist candidates, they have reached an "anyone but Ahmadinejad" mentality. Despite Ahmadinejad's attempts to buy support among the rural populations, and notwithstanding chances of electoral fraud, the reformist candidates still have a chance. Whether the results of these elections will change the Islamic Republic's fundamental policies, however, remains doubtful.

[1] Buchta, Wilfried. Who rules Iran? The Structure of Power in the Islamic Republic. Washington, DC: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2000.