Iran Politicians Woo the Young ; Presidential Hopefuls Reach out with Music and Rallies before Friday's Vote to Sway the Under-30 Majority

Article excerpt

Draped in an Iranian flag, Nahid Molavi clenches her fists and speaks with a political fervor that is supposed to have vanished among Iran's disillusioned youth.

"I support the one who values freedom," declares the 21-year-old history student during a rally for reformist presidential candidate Mustafa Moin.

"I came because I love freedom, because we are Iranians, and we will decide," says Ms. Molavi, who will vote in Friday's presidential election. "This flag is sacred to all of us, and while we are here, democracy will not die."

Ms. Molavi's conviction echoes the certitude of youth politics that once prevailed after erupting unexpectedly in 1997 with the overwhelming victory of President Mohammed Khatami.

Since then, however, hard-liners have blocked Mr. Khatami's agenda - to the point where legions of fans have now given up on reforms and angrily withdrawn from politics altogether.

Tapping into that widespread discontent, some youth leaders and prominent dissidents are calling for an election boycott, describing the reform project as a "failure" that proves the Islamic Republic can't be changed from within.

But the cheering, sometimes tearful, young supporters of Mr. Moin and other candidates - these days, a distinct minority who say they will vote - make clear that a strain of youth politics persists. And every campaign is targeting young people, recognizing the latent political power in the hands of the majority under 30 years old, who can vote from the age of 15.

"We are here for democracy, and Moin is just a tool to take us there," says Mohsen Pahlavizadeh, a student whose thick stubble and narrow face is the very image of a hard-line militiaman.

"We had many revolutions, and we don't want any more," says Mr. Pahlavadeh, referring to the violent revolution of 1979 that brought clerical rule to Iran. "We don't want any more violence. We want change from within."

"We want to continue the way of Khatami," adds Hamid Baharlou, another student with a headband painted with the party slogan: 'Again we make our country.' "But we want it to be more strong, and more precise."

Polls show that Moin is gaining ground on front-runner Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, which could lead to a second-round runoff if no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote.

To reach that threshold and boost his credentials with youths, Mr. Rafsanjani, a two-time former president, has even created a TV segment that shows him in a panel discussion with young people.

The septuagenarian cracks a joke about nudity, and says that people should follow their taste in clothes, according to reports. "In the Islam I know ... no one would feel limited in their instincts," said Rafsanjani, a supporter of the Shiite practice of temporary marriage.

The cleric drew laughs when he admitted to "doing things as a young man that I would not confess to."

On the ground, Rafsanjani campaigners ooze an impression of openness, and try to convince doubters that it will continue after the vote. At a campaign headquarters in Tehran's affluent Fereshdeh neighborhood late Tuesday, a couple hundred people - most young, some with families - cheered an outdoor concert.

For more than two decades, playing music in public has been banned, with the exception of traditional instrumental performances. …

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