Young voters hold the key in race for Iranian presidency

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The Independent Online

Niusha Jamal-e Fard was only eight when Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was last in power in 1997. But on Friday, at the age of 16, she will vote against him as Iran's presidential front-runner seeks a third term of office. "I can remember how much more pressure there was on people then," she told The Independent.

Niusha Jamal-e Fard was only eight when Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was last in power in 1997. But on Friday, at the age of 16, she will vote against him as Iran's presidential front-runner seeks a third term of office. "I can remember how much more pressure there was on people then," she told The Independent.

Mr Rafsanjani will hope that Niusha's recollections are not shared in the schools of Tehran and elsewhere. In a country where the youth vote could hold the key to power, gaining the support of Iranian teenagers is a priority for any candidate.

In the midst of an international crisis over Iran's nuclear programme and a domestic political struggle that has gridlocked the system, Mr Rafsanjani has portrayed himself as the country's only saviour. "He has arrived," says one slogan. But with an estimated two thirds of the population under 30 and a voting age of 15, politics often comes second to work and having fun for a large proportion of the Iranian electorate.

"I am the only one in my class who intends to vote," Jamal-e Fard, who favours the reformist candidate Mostafa Moin, said. "But everybody is excited about the football."

On Wednesday night, tens of thousands of revellers poured on to the streets of Tehran after the national football team qualified for next year's World Cup finals. In some parts of the city, they waved election posters and festooned their cars with stickers proclaiming the names of their favoured candidates, but most were more interested in just having fun.

In northern Tehran, a crowd gathered around a girl who was gyrating rhythmically through a car sunroof at an impromptu carnival. The young crowd applauded as they enjoyed this rare occasion to flout the usually strict codes of public behaviour.

"Iranians never miss an opportunity to be happy," Mehdi Rizwan, 30, an architect, said. "We can only do things like this occasionally. But in election time we can do whatever we like because the government needs our votes."

Well aware of electoral demographics, the candidates have directed their campaigns at the young. Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf, the right-wing former police chief, has adopted the sleek, monochrome style of a perfume advert for his posters, which also feature young football fans. One of Mr Rafsanjani's posters features a young man with shoulder-length hair and goatee beard.

The former president has a strong lead in most opinion polls but he is unlikely to win the 50 per cent of votes needed for a first-ballot victory - setting up a second round contest between Mr Rafsanjani and one of the other seven candidates, probably either Mr Moin or Mr Qalibaf, on 24 June.

Mr Rafsanjani, nicknamed "Akbar Shah" for his reputedly opulent tastes, is running as the candidate of economic reform, freedom of speech and rapprochement with the West. However, many voters see his ability to work the system as more important than election promises. Mr Qalibaf's campaign talks of restoring Iran's national pride and Mr Moin is focusing on human rights.

So far the election has failed to grab the public imagination. Polls suggest turn-out will be about 50 per cent, low in a country where 70 per cent regularly cast their vote. Many voters are frustrated with a system in which democratically elected leaders,such as the outgoing President Mohammed Khatami, are unable to pursue policies that conflict with the clerical establishment.

"I'm not voting," said Nader Karimi, 22, who makes car parts in a workshop. "We thought Khatami would make things better but he wasn't allowed to. Anyway, Rafsanjani will win. It's already been decided."

In the previous two elections, student politics were critical to the reformist success as young people returned from university and spread their new ideas across the country. But that power seems to be waning as disillusionment sets in.

For Sara Mohseni, 15, trying to reconcile the progressive demands of her age group with a conservative family background is work enough. "It's better to vote," she said. "We have to choose between bad and worse and going back eight years to Rafsanjani is definitely worse. I want to go forward."

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