Thursday, December 13, 2007

President Ahmadinejad Seen Through the Eyes of the Poor

President Ahmadinejad Seen Through the Eyes of the Poor

نگاه اقشار محروم به احمدی‌نژاد؛ 28 ماه پس از حضور در قدرت

Maryam Radnia | Mazandaran | 5 December 2007

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When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected Iranian president in 2005, most of his support came from the poorer sections of society. His famous campaign pledge was that he'd distribute his country's oil money so that it landed on people's dinner tables. He also promised to establish social justice and root out corruption.

In short, what Ahmadinejad was offering was an end to the way things had been run so far in Iran. He was going to reshape the system so that it worked in favour of the most vulnerable sections of the population.

The people who turned out to vote for him were certainly motivated, in part, by religious conviction and by their anger at the record of bureaucracy over past years.

But what's just as important is that many of those seventeen million voters were hoping for a reduction in inequality. They were hoping they really would end up with more on the dinner table.

Twenty-eight months after that watershed election, almost none of Ahmadinejad's promises has materialised.

Economic policy decisions and the unrestrained emission of money have resulted in unprecedented inflation over the last ten years. A fifty per cent rise in house prices has been accompanied by sharp increases in the cost of staple items like dairy products, fruit, meat and vegetables.

The result is that people have less purchasing power, and their tables are emptier. There's no sign of all that oil money.

Social justice has not been established, and the factors commonly used to measure it show no signs of improvement. Social security and health provision remain problematic, and the gulf between their availability and demand has widened. A recent report from the Central Bank of Iran shows that massive rises in water, electricity, gas and telephone charges have contributed greatly to the overall inflation figures.

Far from being reduced, unemployment is on the rise, as production falls and the population increases in size. The petrol rationing scheme introduced over the summer has created still more problems for poorer people.

The authorities have encouraged unprecedented levels of imports to maintain the availability of goods on the market. But the deluge of imports has had a damaging effect on local manufacturing.

All this provides critics of the government with ammunition to claim that President Ahmadinejad is becoming less and less popular among the poorer sections of society that form his natural constituency.

But although that argument contains an element of truth, it is far from being a complete reflection of the situation.

Ahmadinejad is certainly facing increased criticism from the educated elite and parts of the urban population in the big cities. But it isn't logical to suggest that the president is losing support among university students, the educated classes and the better-off. He never enjoyed much popularity with them anyway.

The bulk of the population doesn't necessarily feel the same way about Ahmadinejad.

It's certainly true that none of his election promises have been delivered on. Purchasing power has definitely declined, unemployment has gone up, and that nearly ten per cent more people now fall below the bread line. Yet even these facts don't automatically mean that rural and other impoverished communities have ditched their president.

It's important to remember how much impact government propaganda can have among poorer sections of the population, especially as they live in an oral culture, not a literary one.

Take the shoemaker I met this summer in Noor, a town in the northern province of Mazandaran. This man genuinely loved Ahmadinejad. It was the president's rivals, he said, who were responsible for his plans being derailed and for the rising cost of living. There are many people in villages across Mazandaran and other undeveloped provinces who think the same way.

Some of the president's policies and actions have genuine popular appeal, even if the educated classes dismiss them as misguided, populist gestures.

In the past two years, Ahmadinejad has visited virtually every city and town in Iran, meeting the people and speaking to them directly. In many deprived parts of the country, the mere fact that you have talked to the president is an intense experience that you will remember over many years with a sense of pride.

In the course of all these visits, Ahmadinejad gets a lot of letters from members of the public. So far there have been six million of them.

And in reply, he sends out literally tens of thousands of letters to government bodies instructing them to take action. Often these instructions lead to the person who appealed to him getting their problem resolved.

About half of these letters from the public are requests for small sums of money. The authorities appear to be responding to them with small gifts of money ranging between fifty thousand and a hundred thousand toman, or up to one hundred US dollars. More importantly, the president's office replies to each and every letter, and hands out sums of money to most of the supplicants through the Emdad or Aid Committee.

The government has also changed the banking system to make loans on easy credit terms available to millions of less well-off people. These loans, which don't exceed a million toman, roughly a thousand dollars, can go a long way towards resolving some of the short-term problems these people face. Before Ahmadinejad came to power, it was extremely difficult for people to take out such unsecured loans.

Another scheme – known as self-employment credit - has seen hundreds of thousands of loans of between five and ten million tomans offered to young unemployed people, to allow them to set themselves up in business. Many economists argue that the loans haven't actually created jobs, as the young borrowers use the money to buy a car or other consumer goods, or to get married. In other words, the scheme has simply turned the young unemployed into the young, unemployed and indebted.

But even if these employment loans haven't been an economic success, they've still had immense impact in terms of propaganda.

The final thing Ahmadinejad has been able to pull out of his war chest is the so-called Justice Share scheme. Under this somewhat rushed scheme, the government issued millions of shares in state-owned industries to the most impoverished strata of society.

There's been considerable criticism of the scheme, and many experts see it as highly risky for the economy. But the government has pressed on regardless, and in early November it announced that the first dividends from the Justice Shares were now due – and that they'd be paid out to deprived families in hard cash.

So despite the economic instability and the fall in purchasing power for less well-off Iranians, the Ahmadinejad government has nevertheless taken a number of steps that may keep its support solid in small provincial towns and in the countryside. Even if some of these measures could ultimately go against the national interest and further undermine economic stability, in the short term, at least, they will meet some of the needs of Iran's poorest voters.

Maryam Raadnia is a reporter in Mazandaran province.

This article is an abridged and translated version of the full original text published on the Farsi pages of Mianeh, with editorial adjustments agreed with the writer made to provide clarity for English-language readers.

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