In the wee hours of the night, the Iranian public packs up its banners and whistles and heads home for some rest till the next day of campaigning begins.
The unprecedented levels of street gatherings that are taking place in the last days and nights before the Iranian presidential election on Friday are reminiscent of the sorts of rallies and demonstrations that were eventually called the Revolution.
It isn't an overthrow this time -- in some ways, it's bigger: it's an informed public participating in the electoral process. The angry mobs of yore didn't exactly have a plan, this year the public does. They know what their limitations are, what they need and what they want.
This is the most important change in this election season -- the actual results are secondary. When nearly 500 registered candidates are whittled down to just four establishment elites, any hope for real change goes out the window.
This election is about image, and the Iranian public knows, it but it takes a lot to admit that image alone is worth fighting for.
In Tehran, Esfahan, Shiraz and Yazd -- from North to South and everything in between -- the citizens of Iran take to the streets every night now. Speeches are made by the wives of war martyrs, shahid's as they are called and revered by most Iranians. The butcher the baker, the candlestickmaker, and their wives all step out to speak up and be heard. The crowds gather to support them.
It's almost festive with the firecrackers, the car honking, the sunroof revelry, and the in-unison replies.
"Ahmadinejad is one of us!" shout the supporters of the incumbent President. He is the image of the poor underclass who suffered the war years, who didn't become nouveau riche property magnates or jump up to join the massive Iranian middle class. They like his khaki jacket, his smirky confidence. He's a principlist conservative -- goes back to the principles of the Revolution and Imam Khomeini (as many Iranians refer to the Ayatollah).
"The mighty lion can have a gentle roar" say the supporters of reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. They contend that Ahmadinejad has soiled the image of Iran with his tone and his rhetoric. Mousavi himself says he's a reformist principlist. He too hearkens back to the Khomeini era, taking pride in the principles of those days and a personal friendship with the Ayatollah which put him in the seat of the Prime Ministership from 1981 to 1989 -- all the way through the post-revolutionary chaos, the Iran-Iraq war and even the Reagan contra scandal.
Ahmadinejad and Mousavi are the top contenders, but reformist cleric Mehdi Karroubi who was the former Parliament Speaker, and Mohsen Rezai, a conservative former Commander of the Revolutionary Guards, have also held their own in the campaign. Karroubi and Rezai in particular have made fast gains through their media connections: Karroubi's daily paper Etemaad-e Melli (the National Trust, named after his own political party) is one of the most widely read reformist papers in the country. Rezai's news site Tabnak has caught the attention of the Internet-savvy and news hungry public.
The first-ever televised presidential debates played to this public need for a more balanced media coverage and early on fed the night gatherings. Prior to the debates, several of the candidates demanded equal airtime on the state run broadcaster -- the debates delivered. At night, after the debates, crowds have been gathering in the streets to hear speakers discuss the fine points of the night's debates and their guy's performance.
In a warning to those who are thinking of making a habit of the gatherings, the government has announced that no impromptu demonstrations can take place after tomorrow and has plans for a significant security presence on election day. Anyone who wants to speak to a crowd will need to apply for a permit.
But the public is on a roll now.
For many, their daily routine is now highlighted by the moonlight get-togethers. With such passion in the air and so much at stake, it seems likely that whichever camp loses won't apply for a permit to pour into the streets once the election is over.
Understandably, the establishment is getting worried.
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