The Iranian presidential election is shaping up to be closer than many in the West predicted. And, reports Austin Mackell from Tehran, the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is doing himself no favours days out from the polls…
Tehran’s prayer grounds are so big, they have a metro station at each end. Although today’s event was ostensibly secular, there was a distinctly religious fervour among the crowds massing for Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s major rally as the country prepares for Friday’s elections.
Obsessed with seeing their idol as close as possible, hundreds upon hundreds of Ahmadinejad’s young male supporters swarmed into the area at the front of the stage designated for press and the disabled, forcing us to be led to the relative seclusion of a balcony above the stage.
I say ‘relative’, because the zeal of the Iranian reporters and photographers easily matched that of their compatriots in the tens of thousands (claims circulated by the Ahmadinejad camp of a million-strong turnout are way off the mark) below us. It was a scene more reminiscent of a rock concert than a political rally. Even Barack Obama would struggle to generate this kind of emotion.
From our vantage point we could see the disabled being passed through the crowds like rag dolls towards a space beside the stage, their wheelchairs and bags following behind them. Others followed having passed out from the heat or been injured in the crush. Blood spurted from the nose of one supporter as he struggled to escape the crowd.
Yet the absurdity of the situation was heightened by the yawning space at the back of the women’s section of the segregated crowd, where children kicked empty bottles back and forth to pass the time.
Meanwhile, the stage was occupied by a procession of Ahmadinejad’s celebrity supporters – the coach and players from Iran’s soccer team, famous television and movie directors, a Madduh (singer of Islamic songs) of television fame, and, most importantly, world champion weightlifter and Iranian hero Rezah Zadeh. The struggle for position both on the balcony and off intensified.
‘Here it comes,’ we all thought. ‘Here he comes.’
There was a strange pause for a few minutes and then the Muddah was singing for a clearly unscheduled second time. Next, someone was leading the crowd in chants calling Ahmadinejad’s opponents corrupt and calling for the fall of America and Israel. There was a nervousness in the body language of the men around the stage. They were stalling.
As more time passed, the hysteria of the crowd and its frightening surges increased, swamping the small space for the disabled. We saw Amir – a wheelchair-bound 32-year-old the size of a small boy, who had told us upon our arrival that he was here to support the president because it was what the supreme leader Khameini wanted – being bundled off through the backstage area. People began to fight to leave, tearing down the flags that had adorned the balconies as they searched for a way out.
It was only after more than two hours of this increasing chaos that defeat was finally admitted. Ahmadinejad’s motorcade had been unable to negotiate the crowds, so instead he had simply waved to his supporters in the courtyard outside the building, and the event was declared over.
Of the people we spoke to on the way out, none would admit to even being disappointed at having missed out on a chance to see the president speak, let alone to being unimpressed with his organisation’s inability to manage the rabble it had roused. It just showed how loved he was, they insisted.
There was, however, a quietness that hung over the departing crowd, completely out of step with the current atmosphere, characterised by groups of young, rival supporters cheering and dancing through the streets. As I write, the sound of hoots, horns, whistles, chants and songs pumping from car stereos fills the air. It’s midnight here and this will go on until almost dawn, just as it has been doing on a nightly basis for weeks.
The supporters can be identified by colour-coded wrist bands – Ahmadinejad’s fans sport bands with green, red and white stripes, matching the colours of the Iranian flag in which they are often also draped, while followers of his main opponent, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, wear bands of simple green.
Both groups are surprisingly diverse. While some fit the stereotype (like the man leaving Ahmadinejad’s rally with the passenger seat of his ute empty while the women and children rode in the tray), others don’t. Attractive girls in tight jeans wearing brightly scarves pulled back past the centre of their heads can be seen with the tricolour Ahmadinejad ribbons, and women in full black chardors with Mousavi’s green.
Both sets of supporters are willing their candidates over the line, and it’s hard to believe that the monumental cock-up – can things fail on a Koranic scale? – of Ahmadinejad failing to appear at his own rally so close to the election won’t be a factor in what seems to be a very close race.