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Voters Divided On The Final Day Of Campaigning In Iran

May 18, 2017
Originally published on May 18, 2017 11:20 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Iran's presidential campaign has come to an end. Iranian election rules require a day of quiet today before actual voting begins tomorrow. The last night of campaigning, though, was not quiet at all. Our co-host Steve Inskeep reports from the road in Iran.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We've just come off the highway from Tehran. Past factory after factory, there auto plants. There's a pasta factory, machine shops, a steel plant, long industrial section at the foot of the Alborz Mountains. And now we're arriving in the city of Qazvin just going around the ceremonial gate at the entrance to the city and heading onto Ayatollah Khamenei Boulevard, which is named after Iran's supreme leader.

Khamenei's name is a reminder. The Iranian people do not elect the cleric who is their most powerful official. They are allowed to elect a president. And on the last night of campaigning, they take the chance to make noise. We've come to hear the noise as it sounds in a working-class industrial zone well outside the Capitol.

We're walking down a tree-lined main avenue of this suburb of Qazvin. Everybody is out on a perfect night in May. It is the last night for formal campaigning. And up and down the street, you can see rallies for both President Rouhani and his rival Ebrahim Raisi.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Farsi).

INSKEEP: This group of people is chanting Rouhani, Rouhani. They're doing it while wading into traffic, slipping between cars and handing out flyers for Iran's president, Hasan Rouhani. He's the man who cut a nuclear deal with the West, and now he wants a second term.

People have brought their children out for politics. On the sidewalk, a girl wears a pink dress and a bonnet. In the street, a man puts a flag in his daughter's hand and moves her arm back and forth. She looks annoyed at first but later gets into it. And older people, they were into it from the start.

AKBAR KHALILI: Hello, you welcome.

INSKEEP: Thank you. Thank you.

KHALILI: How are you? Where are you from?

INSKEEP: USA.

KHALILI: USA America.

INSKEEP: The man who introduced himself there is Akbar Khalili. He's got white hair and a trimmed white beard. He wears a gray blazer over a shirt that's purple - the color of President Rouhani's campaign.

KHALILI: What's your favorite newspaper's name?

INSKEEP: NPR - National Public Radio.

We're standing right next to an oversized speaker.

It's very loud here. Let's step over here a little bit.

So we walked down the street, and a friend of ours points out white plastic chairs where we can take in the evening. Khalili tells me he sells building materials.

KHALILI: Cement and mosaic and tile.

INSKEEP: And he says he's done OK in recent years even though the broader economy has not. President Rouhani reduced inflation, but unemployment remains high. Khalili's business has not been doing well enough for him to hire new workers, but economic policies are not really what brought Khalili out into the street.

KHALILI: (Speaking Farsi).

INSKEEP: We want to have interaction with the other countries of the world, he says. We don't want to go backward. We want better relationships. We want to be able to go to the other countries of the world as you're coming here.

When our conversation ends, I reach out my hand. And as he takes it, Khalili makes an invitation. He says he'd like to take us for a visit to the mountains on the horizon.

KHALILI: Very beautiful. You are our guest.

INSKEEP: Sadly, there's work to do and more to see on this street outside Qazvin on Iran's last night of election campaigning because while President Rouhani is favored to win, conservatives have united behind a challenger.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Farsi).

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Farsi).

INSKEEP: Not even two blocks down the street, they gather in front of a mosque made of yellow bricks. Supporters of the challenger, Ebrahim Raisi, crowd the lawn, spill into the road, chant that Rouhani will soon be gone and hand us flyers. And through an interpreter we fall into conversation with Mehdi Mohammad Khani who wears a loose blue shirt and a scraggly beard.

What do you do for a living?

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: (Speaking Farsi).

MEHDI MOHAMMAD KHANI: (Speaking Farsi).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: He's a cleric.

INSKEEP: Or more properly, a clerical student whose religious views drive his support for Ebrahim Raisi.

KHANI: (Through interpreter) The most important factor is preserving the power of the Islamic Republic and following the Velayat-e faqih - the leadership.

INSKEEP: That's the rule of the jurist - the Islamic jurist of the supreme leader.

That's the ayatollah we mentioned who is more powerful than any president. This crowd, too, like Rouhani supporters down the street, is a crowd of men, women and children. Although, many are dressed differently. In a place like this, every woman dresses conservatively and covers her hair. But some do it with color and style, while the women here supporting Raisi all wear loose black. They include Gham Sharif Pour, who says she runs a school based on the Quran.

How do you think your students' lives will be different if Raisi wins?

GHAM SHARIF POUR: (Speaking Farsi).

INSKEEP: He will do something about unemployment, she says, and also about hijab. She wants more women to dress like her.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Farsi).

INSKEEP: In his campaign, Ebrahim Raisi has focused on the uneven economy. Presumably, that message appeals to just about everyone. But here among his core supporters, the economy is only one issue. Just as I'm leaving the Raisi rally, I feel a hand on my shoulder. It belongs to Saeed Mahdi Mirabad Hosseni. And he says he has views of the president even though he's not quite old enough to vote.

Rouhani said he would bring freedom.

SAEED MAHDI MIRABAD HOSSENI: Yes.

INSKEEP: You don't believe that he wanted to bring freedom?

HOSSENI: His freedom is different between - than our freedom.

INSKEEP: What is his freedom and your freedom?

HOSSENI: His freedom is that girl and boy can do everything with themselves. In our schools, they should teach gay. They should teach lesbians. They should teach sex.

INSKEEP: For the record, President Rouhani is himself a cleric who's made no overt moves toward gay rights. Liberals support him because he is the most liberal candidate who was allowed to run.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Farsi).

INSKEEP: Down the street, President Rouhani's people, too, talk of freedom.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Farsi).

INSKEEP: Once they chant something daring - freedom of thought can't be attacked. In Iran, people must express political opinions very carefully, if at all, most of the time. But an election requires the authorities to loosen up. People who feel short of freedom use it while they can.

GREENE: Steve Inskeep reporting from Iran where there's a presidential election tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.