Rallies combining the fever of a football World Cup match and the fervour of a religious conversion have brought Tehran to a standstill this week, as Iran heads into its most vibrant presidential election since the Islamic republic was born 30 years ago.
“Hello to Moussavi, but we’re voting for Ahmadi,” cheered thousands of supporters of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, Iran’s president who is seeking re-election this Friday, at a huge rally this week, referring to his strongest opponent, Mir-Hossein Moussavi, a reform-minded candidate. “Vote for someone who has a simple lifestyle,” beseech their banners.
“Moussavi, Moussavi, take back Iran’s flag,” supporters of the president’s rival shouted back, in one of the face-offs that have been taking place all around the capital as rival supporters gate-crash each other’s events.
Iran has never seen this kind of frenzied campaigning, not even before the election of the reformist Mohammad Khatami in 1997. Some are comparing the crowds in the streets to those that preceded the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Mr Moussavi’s campaign has conjured up reminders of the “Tehran spring” – a period of greater freedoms ushered in by Mr Khatami, which were brought to a halt with the election of the fundamentalist Mr Ahmadi-Nejad in 2005. Mr Moussavi’s pledge to be a more moderate leader has attracted the support of many young Iranians – almost 60 per cent of the population is under 30.
“Most of us support Moussavi because we are fed up with living under these restrictions,” said Maryam, wearing designer sunglasses at a rally in support of Mr Moussavi held in downtown Tehran on Tuesday, where thousands of green-bedecked supporters chanted in support of Mr Ahmadi-Nejad’s rival.
This carnival atmosphere started with Mr Moussavi’s youthful camp, and Mr Ahmadi-Nejad’s supporters, caught on the back foot, have followed many of their gimmicks, as have the other two candidates but to a much lesser extent.
Cars and motorbikes are plastered with candidates’ posters, young people are wearing wristbands in the colours of their preferred candidate – green for Mr Moussavi, red for the president – and traffic grinds to a halt every night as cars full of young people hit the streets in impromptu parades that often continue until 4am.
On Monday, supporters of Mr Moussavi even formed a human chain – as many as 1m people linking hands the length of Vali Asr, the 12km street that runs through Tehran.
“Moussavi believes in democracy and in the democratic change of power,” said Payam, a 34-year-old graduate. “As Imam Ali [the father of Shia Islam] says, when people do not agree with you being in power, you should get out of power.”
But the president’s backers are equally sure that he is the right man for the job.
“He supports the oppressed and the downtrodden. I like his ideas,” says Samira, an 18-year-old Ahmadi-Nejad supporter wearing a red, white and green headband, like the Iranian flag, under her black all-enveloping chador, who is voting for the first time this week.
“Mr Ahmadi-Nejad is a revolutionary person and he has carried out the ideals of the Islamic revolution, especially in foreign policy with his brave stance against Israel and the US,” said Amir-Hossein, a 23-year-old law student with an Ahmadi-Nejad-style beard at Monday’s rally.
Some of this election fever stems from the fact that Iran is for the first time witnessing televised presidential debates, leading to greater interest and engagement in the polls. The street protests have grown considerably since the highly charged debate between Mr Moussavi and his rival last Wednesday. Women are also turning out in higher numbers, partly owing to the fact that Mr Moussavi’s wife, Zahra Rahnavard, has taken a high-profile role accompanying him on the hustings.
This could influence the outcome of the elections because Mr Ahmadi-Nejad’s support base – particularly the rural poor – usually turn out to vote, whereas the disaffected middle class have in the past been more apathetic believing that voting was not going to change anything.
Analysts estimate that Mr Ahmadi-Nejad has a core base of 10-12m voters, meaning low turnout will help him secure the 51 per cent majority needed to win outright in Friday’s first round. The Moussavi camp hopes a higher turnout among Iran’s 46m registered voters will reduce Mr Ahmadi-Nejad’s share.
“A lot of people thought that it didn’t make any difference whether they voted for this guy or that guy because it was still the same regime,” said one western diplomat in Tehran. “Ahmadi-Nejad has taught them that it makes a difference.”