Published in: Guardian Unlimited
Analysts: Rafsanjani Turned Off the Poor


TEHRAN, Iran (AP) - Losing presidential candidate Hashemi Rafsanjani failed to lure reformers and liberals to the polls, and he turned off the poor because he seemed to symbolize Iran's rich and powerful elite, say voters and analysts trying to explain the country's election.

The victory by a hard-liner, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, leaves reformers out in the cold, bereft of both the presidency and any solid influence at the ballot box.

Ahmadinejad's appeal to the poor and unemployed, and his introduction as an uncorrupt, fresh face, were the apparent keys to his sweeping victory.

His rival, Rafsanjani, a pragmatist who is Iran's best known statesman, paid the price for being a tried-and-tested figure, symbolizing wealth and power. He was someone many Iranians couldn't relate to. And his failure to focus on religion in his campaign - plus a voting boycott by reformers and liberals - apparently cost him the presidency.

Mohammad Ali Abtahi, an adviser to outgoing reformist president Mohammad Khatami, blamed Rafsanjani's defeat on the failure of reformers to bring about meaningful change during Khatami's rule and the disappointment among Iranians as a result. Those disappointed people apparently stayed away from the vote.

``Rafsanjani ... symbolizes wealth and power. And Ahmadinejad capitalized on the schism between the government and the people, the poor and the rich, and symbolized himself as the one who is going to fight poverty,'' he said.

Abtahi believes reformers did little to convince many of the disappointed youth to vote for Rafsanjani.

Yet even Ahmadinejad's supporters are surprised at how convincingly he won.

``Still, I can't believe he made it,'' said Narges Mousavi, a young conservative woman who voted for Ahmadinejad. ``Rafsanjani was too big to beat, but Ahmadinejad did it easily.''

The daily newspaper Etemad, or Confidence, said the overall support of Rafsanjani by many political parties had backfired.

``The more the elite backed Rafsanjani, the more the people's strange sense was provoked that Rafsanjani was being imposed on them,'' the newspaper said.

Retired teacher and shopkeeper Taqi Zamani says Ahmadinejad's simple attire and unpolished style ``was much more effective than the expensive campaign posters'' of Rafsanjani.

``People decided to turn to a man who talks about butter and bread,'' Zamani said.

Now, reformers are on the verge of total elimination from Iran's political map - losing both the election and a sympathetic Khatami who helped spur freedoms after taking office in 1997.

Few voters also seemed to pay attention to the nuclear issue. Iran's top nuclear negotiators had spoken publicly before the vote about the race - saying that Iran needed the wisdom and experience of Rafsanjani and his pragmatist views rather than the hard-line rhetoric of Ahmadinejad.

Ahmadinejad, the 49-year-old mayor of Tehran, has indicated he will push for a tougher position at the nuclear talks with the Europeans. But Rafsanjani, 70, had indicated that he would seek a compromise and reach out to the United States.

Ahmadinejad himself said Sunday in his first news conference that the country will continue to pursue a peaceful nuclear program.


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