TEHRAN (Reuters) - The young Iranians cruising noisily around upscale northern Tehran in cars plastered with election posters have only one thing on their minds: denying President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a second term.
Millions of reform-minded Iranians stayed away from the polls in 2005, disillusioned by how hardliners had stymied former President Mohammad Khatami’s liberal initiatives.
Ahmadinejad’s political fate may well hang on how many of those jaded voters turn out on June 12 — if only to thwart him.
“I will vote, but only because I want to see anyone but Ahmadinejad win. He has ruined the country,” said Mina Sedaqati, a 25-year-old sociology student at Tehran University, over coffee and doughnuts with friends in northern Tehran.
More than two-thirds of Iran’s 70 million people are aged under 30, making them too young to remember life before the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed Shah.
All four presidential candidates are wooing youthful voters in speeches and campaign messages and have used popular networking and content-sharing sites such as Facebook to target young people.
More than 150,000 Iranians are Facebook members, and young voters make up a huge bloc which helped Khatami win elections in 1997 and 2001. Access to Facebook was blocked for a few days last month, suggesting government concern at its influence.
But analysts say the anti-Ahmadinejad vote is likely to be split between the radical president’s two moderate rivals, ex-Prime Minister Mirhossein Mousavi and former parliament speaker Mehdi Karoubi.
Karoubi, the only cleric in the race, has even met one of Iran’s best-known underground rap singers, Sasy Mankan.
Mousavi and Karoubi’s posters adorn the cars of the middle-class youngsters eager to stop Ahmadinejad out of fear he will lead Iran on a collision course with the West and further erode social freedom.
Ahmadinejad also faces a conservative challenger in Mohsen Rezai, a former Revolutionary Guard chief, but the president has his own support base among young people who admire his defiant nuclear rhetoric, simple lifestyle and devotion to Islam, as well as his pledges of social justice.
“I will vote for Ahmadinejad because his policies in the past four years have been a return to the fundamental values of the Islamic revolution,” said Mohammad Reza Baqeri, 24, a member of the Basij, a religious militia group, who criticized previous governments for neglecting the poor.
“Ahmadinejad is a hero. He stood against those who were Iran’s enemies for years, but in return he befriended other nations,” said the religious studies graduate, referring to ties the president has forged with U.S. adversaries such as Venezuela and Bolivia.
An Iranian political analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of Iranian politics, described the election as a referendum on Ahmadinejad. “Some people, especially among the young, are for him and some are only voting to prevent his re-election,” he said.
Ahmadinejad swept to power in 2005, promising to share oil wealth among ordinary Iranians, and has frequently toured the provinces distributing loans and development projects.
Reformists and even some conservatives say the president has failed to keep his promises, blaming him for rising unemployment and high inflation, which is hovering around 18 percent.
But Iran’s most powerful figure, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has repeatedly praised Ahmadinejad’s government and urged people to vote for an anti-Western candidate.
That seeming endorsement could rally conservatives behind Ahmadinejad — but could also backfire if protest voters seize the chance to defy Iran’s clerical establishment.
Ahmadinejad’s four-year term has seen a crackdown on reformist student activists and renewed efforts by the feared “morality police” to enforce what they deem Islamic behavior.
“How can I feel safe when the president of a country allows the arrest of women for what they wear?” Sedeqati asked, wearing a red loose headscarf.
The political analyst said Ahmadinejad had alienated large sections of the electorate. “The imposed restrictions have mobilized youth and women against him. They are afraid that his re-election will pressure them more.”
No one knows if such sentiments will be enough to overcome the political apathy shown by these groups since the eight-year Khatami era ended with little to show for his reformist drive.
“All hopes, such as social and political reforms, created under Khatami are shattered,” Sedaqati said.
Khatami had planned to run again, but then withdrew in favor of Mousavi. He won landslide presidential votes in 1997 and 2001, and pushed for detente with the West and for a freer Iran. But hardliners who had kept hold of security agencies and other levers of power blocked many of his reform attempts.
In the late 1990s students formed a bastion of support for Khatami, but many lost heart when reforms failed to materialize.
“Iranian youth have lost their spirit and livelihood since 2005,” said Sedaqati.
Editing by Alistair Lyon and Sara Ledwith