ISFAHAN, Iran (Reuters) - Few in this traditionalist Iranian city doubt that the conservatives will triumph in Friday’s parliamentary election.
Nonetheless, even among the people of Isfahan — who overwhelmingly backed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in his successful 2005 presidential bid — his popularity is falling as disenchantment with his policies mounts.
“I have always voted but you see the result now. What has the government done for the economy? It is worse than ever,” said Reza, an antique dealer in Isfahan’s covered bazaar, where traders are traditionally staunchly conservative.
This may not mean Reza and others are about to shift towards reformists seeking political and social change. But it may depress the turnout, which is the opposite of what Iran’s leadership wants.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei renewed a call on Wednesday for voters to come out in large numbers to show support for the ruling system and defy the Islamic Republic’s “enemies” — generally a reference to the United States. Other leaders echoed his call.
But there’s little appetite for an election in this historic city — where only one banner, put up by the municipality to urge a high turnout, hangs in Isfahan’s vast central square flanked by turquoise-domed mosques and a cedar-columned palace.
And everyone seems clear about the outcome.
“There is actually no competition in Isfahan. Reformists have no candidates. It is a competition among conservatives,” said Fazlollah Salavati, who was one of the leaders of the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed Shah.
Many pro-reform candidates were barred by a hardline vetting body from running for the 290-seat parliament, leaving the field to conservatives who dominated the assembly since 2004.
It may not guarantee an easy ride for Ahmadinejad because the conservative camp is broad and includes rivals to the president who are already eying the 2009 presidential race.
But Salavati, who spent 20 years in prison or exile before the revolution and was tortured for opposing the Shah, worries many of Iran’s roughly 43 million eligible voters will stay away and undermine the revolutionary ideals he fought for.
“We made the revolution to bring freedom and democracy ... The vetting process of candidates is against democracy,” Salavati told Reuters. “Reformist voters have no motivation to vote. But supporters of conservatives will cast their ballots.”
Some voters are refusing to be deterred. A theology student at the Imam mosque, an Islamic architectural masterpiece at the heart of the city — home for 1 million people — said voting was his religious duty.
“A low turnout is the West’s dream,” said 23-year-old Mohammad Barkani, who backs conservatives.
But near the 17th century Si-o-se Pol — or “thirty-three bridge” so named for the number of elegant arches spanning the Zayand-e Rud river — a teacher has a different view.
“It is not a free election when I can not vote for those I like. They have all been rejected by the Guardian Council,” said Tahereh, 35, who would not give her full name.
In the winding alleys of the bazaar, others complain about the economic situation and see no reason to reward lawmakers they blame for 19 percent inflation, even if MPs were largely implementing Ahmadinejad’s spending policies.
“I earn rials and spend dollars ... Why should I support those who fuel inflation by their wrong policies?” Masud, owner of a toy shop, who like others who criticized the government did not want his full name used.
But economic worries, even as Iran has record oil earnings, does not necessarily translate into criticism of Ahmadinejad.
“I voted for Ahmadinejad. I will vote for him again. But I will not vote for parliament. Lawmakers have done nothing for the people,” said Sadigheh Makkinejad, sitting by her brother’s grave in the Bagh-e Rezvan cemetery where hundreds of war dead lie from the 1980-88 war with Iraq.
“Ahmadinejad wants to help poor, but those rich people and his opponents do not let him work.”
In the crowded Chahar Bagh street, housewife Mina Hosseini said people would vote to preserve national unity.
“They (the West) wants a low turnout to question the system’s legitimacy. We can not make our enemies happy,” she said, adjusting her chador, a black head-to-toe covering.
Editing by Samia Nakhoul