TEHRAN – President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who came to power two years ago, winning 62 percent of the popular vote, is rapidly losing popularity for failure to make good on election promises to improve the lives of ordinary people by sharing Iran’s vast oil revenues with them and respect their private lives.
A poll run by Baztab news on the anniversary of the elections that brought Ahmadinejad to power found his popularity plummeting. The poll with 20,000 individuals polled showed that 62.5 percent of respondents who had voted for Ahmadinejad two years ago would not elect him president again. And only 3.5 percent of those who had not voted for him before said they would now vote for him for the presidency.
"The advocates of the (hard line) Ahmadinejad administration claim the Baztab poll was biased, but even a poll run by Fars news agency which is known to be very pro-government revealed that 44.6 percent of the respondents to the poll believed his economic policies had not had any positive effects on the economy compared to 30.3 percent who believed he had made things better. Another 25.1 percent said things were worse than before economically," a reformist activist in Tehran revealed to IPS on the condition of anonymity.
"His campaign was mainly focused on promises of fighting corruption and improving people’s lives economically. He claimed the oil money was being misappropriated and wasted. These were on the top of the list of the millions of ordinary people outside the minority hard line religious establishment whose main concerns were issues of religious morality and religious values. The President’s failure to deliver his economic promises has naturally disillusioned this large group of voters who find themselves under even greater pressure than before," the activist said.
"Voters clearly stated their disappointment with the government last December when they refused to vote for the electoral lists that the President’s allies had put out for city councils and the Assembly of Experts. Things are worse for now. Gasoline rationing and the problems it has caused in transportation, tourism, agriculture and many other areas is greatly contributing to people’s disillusionment with the government," he added.
Criticism of the Ahmadinejad administration’s performance in economy is not limited to the reformists. Many among the hardliners and conservatives who joined forces earlier to bring him to power are also very unhappy with his policies and their outcome. There is no ground anymore for saying the government should be granted more time, the hard line Jomhuri Eslami newspaper said in an editorial recently.
"Nearly two years have passed since the present administration became established. All this time has been enough for gaining mastery of things, control over whatever they needed to take control of and establishing order of whatever they wanted to give order to. Excuses such as saying their performance is hindered (by adversaries) are no longer acceptable to the people because the government enjoys the Supreme Leader’s special support and no one and no group is able to stand up against such a government," the Jomhuri Eslami wrote.
Ahmadinejad persistently accuses his adversaries of sabotaging his government’s efforts. "The mafia," as he calls them, were responsible for the shocking hike in housing prices, failure of the country’s pharmaceutical system and excessive importation of sugar, Aftab news agency reported the President as telling parliament members from his native Semnan province recently. "The mafia" fabricated deceitful news to make the government look responsible for the increase in inflation, the President railed.
According to the results of an Internet poll run by Aftab, 66 percent of the more than 66,000 respondents believe the wrong economic decisions of the government are the cause of inflation. Only 11 percent said problems created by his adversaries caused inflation and 12 percent found the country’s economic structure at fault.
"The problem is that the government wants to improve things through spending cash and they have plenty of that at their disposal. Government expenditures from oil revenues over the past two years amounted to 120 billion US dollars, the highest during the past twenty years. Khatami and Hashemi Rafsanjani’s governments had 30 billion dollars and 29 billion dollars to spend in their first two years respectively," an economic observer in Tehran told IPS, requesting anonymity.
"When Khatami handed his office over to Ahmadinejad, 15 billion dollars had been saved in the Oil Stabilization Fund. Inflation was constantly going down before Ahmadinejad took over, but the trend has reversed. The present government has succeeded in spending all the 120 billion dollars in oil revenues as well as draining the Fund and failed even to keep the economic growth rate, just above five percent now, at the level it had been," he said.
"The huge growth in liquidity, doubled since two years, is obviously the cause of the high inflation but very stubbornly and categorically the President refuses to acknowledge the problem or to correct his ways," he added.
The latest figure for inflation, for the three month period ending in December last year that was recently released by the Central Bank of Iran was 14.2 percent, up from 12.6 percent in 2005. International Monetary Fund has predicted the inflation in Iran to rise to 17.6 percent in 2007, the third highest among the Middle East and Central Asian countries. Critics in Iran claim the real inflation figure is much higher. Last year the Parliament Research Center found inflation at 21 percent, while the inflation rate announced by the Central Bank was 13.2 percent.
To control the inflation and in order to regulate the market the government has opened the country up to imports by lowering, and in some cases removing, all tariffs. The huge increase in imports is damaging the national industries, agriculture and producers of household items, 57 economists cautioned the President in an open letter two months ago. The policy will also cause greater dependence on oil revenues and make the national economy more vulnerable to unexpected plunges in oil revenues, they warned him.
The aggressive and unyielding foreign policy is seen by many as the cause of increasing isolation of Iran and the sanctions imposed on the country for refusing to halt its controversial nuclear program. Many foreign banks are now refusing to deal with Iran and foreign companies, many of which have been working on Iran’s oil and gas fields, are on their way out.
"For lack of reasonable foreign policy our government has to bribe other countries like Venezuela, Nicaragua, Pakistan and India to win allies. With the conclusion of the recent gas deal with Pakistan and India recently we will be selling our gas to those countries for 20 years at a price 32 percent lower than the price we agreed to sell to Turkey 20 years ago. This is a huge and unpardonable concession," the economic observer told IPS.
During the past two years Ahmadinejad has traveled to more than 350 cities and towns in various provinces with his cabinet members to meet the locals. During his provincial trips the President has been handed over nearly nine million petitions by the local people.
Seventy people have been appointed in the President’s office to look into the petitions, an official in the President’s office said. Forty percent of those who gave petitions asked for financial assistance, 15 percent wanted help to find employment, five percent wanted housing assistance and another five percent needed assistance for medical care. The President’s office has so far granted more than ten million dollars as cash financial assistance to them, Bijan Shahbazkhani, a parliament member was quoted by Aftab news as saying.
"Things might have been more bearable if we were at least given a share of the oil money. Ahmadinejad promised he would place food on our tables and jobs that were supposed to change our lives. We are offered low interest rate loans to create our own jobs but investment is very risky and most of the people I know who have received the loans are using the money in the profitable real estate market. I even know a few people who want to return the loans they have received because they don’t know what to do with the money to be able to pay the loan and the interest back," the 35-year-old owner of a small restaurant at one of the Caspian area holiday resorts, badly stricken by gasoline rationing that has stopped the flow of holidaymakers, told IPS.
"Ahmadinejad has failed us not only economically but also in other respects. At the time of his campaign he expressly promised his government would have nothing to do with the way people looked or dressed. For several months now the police have been harassing people on every corner for bad ‘hejab’ (Islamic dress code) and all the things they consider immoral," he said.