Amidst the high wired elections fever, tensions flared in Tehran last night as thousands of protesters marched to the state television centre, enraged by the discovery that President Ahmadinejad was being given far more airtime than his opponents.
The demonstration came as a leading conservative accused reformists of fomenting a “velvet revolution”. Yadollah Javani, a leader of the hardline Revolutionary Guards, said that reformists were going to claim vote-rigging if their candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, loses in tomorrow’s presidential elections. He vowed to crush any post-election violence.
In another remarkable intervention, about 50 clerics from Qom, Iran’s religious nerve-centre, also rebuked Mr Ahmadinejad, stating in an open letter that “accusing people in a session when they are not present is contrary to our religion.” Such conduct would “spread disappointment among the people and make our enemies happy”.
These developments expose deep splits within a ruling establishment that never normally airs its disagreements in public and come on the eve of a landmark election in which Mr Mousavi, a relative moderate, could become the first challenger to defeat an incumbent president in the Islamic Republic’s 30-year history.
There are no reliable opinion polls in Iran, but Mr Mousavi has visibly gained momentum in recent days and his exuberant supporters have flooded on to the streets of Tehran in huge numbers. The usual restrictions on dissent have been largely swept aside as the regime has loosened — or lost — its grip ahead of the election.
The election has also exposed the deep divide within Iranian society. Mr Mousavi’s candidacy has galvanised the urban middle-classes, and he also has the support of Mohammed Khatami, the popular reformist President from 1997 to 2005, and Hojatoleslam Rafsanjani, who was defeated by Mr Ahmadinejad in the presidential election of 2005.
Mr Ahmadinejad enjoys strong support among the rural poor and religiously devout, and is thought to have the backing of the Supreme Leader as well as the Revolutionary Guards and the volunteer Basij militia.
Rightly or wrongly, they adore this man who presents himself as the champion of the oppressed, the scourge of Iran’s corrupt elite with its loose morals, a leader who has stood up to the bullying West and restored their country’s pride. Even though the rampant inflation and chronic unemployment have made their lot much worse; he is their man.