by Hiedeh Farmani
TEHRAN - With over 60 per cent of Iranians under the age of 30, the young vote will be crucial in next week's election, where hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is challenged by three fiercely critical rivals.
Several analysts predict a high urban youth turnout in favour of former premier Mir Hossein Mousavi, unknown to many young Iranians but who is passionately promoted by Ahmadinejad's reformist predecessor Mohammad Khatami.
Tehran has been gripped by a new fashion frenzy ahead of the June 12 vote, with scores of teenagers and 20-somethings sporting green wristbands, scarves and T-shirts - but not as an environmental statement.
Green, associated in Iran with descendants of the Prophet Mohammad, has been chosen as the campaign colour of moderate candidate Mousavi, who was the Islamic republic's prime minister during the war with Iraq in the 80s.
This week young men and women started rallying in many city squares and busy crossings, shouting "Mousavi we support you" and seeking to lure passing cars with campaign literature and pictures of their favoured candidate.
"Ahmadinejad has awfully harassed us," Armita Diba, a 25-year-old law intern told AFP in Tehran's bustling Tajrish square.
"I want the liberties we had under Khatami. Last winter I was arrested for wearing high boots," she said of Iran's tough moral police crackdown on 'unIslamic' attire - a move criticised by reformists but backed by many
Diba, who was wearing a Mousavi pin on her chest, did not vote in Iran's 2005 presidential election which saw Ahmadinejad victorious.
"I thought it could not get any worse, but it did," she said. "This time I'm dragging everyone to the poll, even my grandma."
Her friend Payman, 27, who only gave his first name, does not think "governments generally do much for people" but wants Ahmadinejad out because he has hurt Iran's international image."
Ahmadinejad's young supporters have also been marching though Tehran streets - in visibly smaller numbers - urging citizens to vote for 'Mahmoud Mardomi Nejad' (man of the people).
The two camps take each other on in heated debates and clashes have been reported between them. "Ahmadinejad is a modest man with real guts. Don't you see how he talks tough to America?" asked Ali Babai, an 18-year-old student who travels across the city everyday to campaign for Ahmadinejad in northern Tehran.
"Who knows this Mousavi anyway?" retorts the first-time voter, regretting that his parents support the greying former premier.
"The middle class and especially young people stayed away from the poll in 2005 because they were disillusioned with the reforms," sociologist and reformist journalist Hamidreza Jalaipour told AFP.
"But now you see election fervour building up mostly to put an end to the deteriorating path the country is headed," he said.
Under Ahmadinejad, Iran has experienced soaring inflation of 25 per cent, persistent unemployment of over 12 per cent and international isolation, blamed on the hardliner's anti-western and Israel-bashing tirades.
Many young Iranians born in 1980's do not know Mousavi, an uncharismatic 67-year-old architect and painter, who has stepped out of the political wilderness after 20 years.
But the relative freedom they enjoyed during Khatami's 1997 to 2005 presidency and his backing of Mousavi is a key determinant of their choice, many voters interviewed by AFP said.
Women and young Iranians, who swept Khatami to presidency, are going to "come out strong in this election too as they have felt the impact of their presence," political analyst Farzaneh Roostaee told AFP.
"Ahmadinejad's government has alienated and antagonised the urban middle class," she said, describing the incumbent's support camp as "hardliners, a small rich group linked to the government and rural, lower income people."
"But it is Iran's city people who call the shots in the elections," said Roostaee, diplomatic editor of leading reformist daily Etemad.
"Depending on their turnout, big victories and defeats are scored in Iran," she said. "This election will be signified by a 'spiteful vote', a chance to say no to the status quo."
Another presidential contender, reformist Mehdi Karroubi, is also said to have garnered support on campuses following his repeated condemnations of pressures faced by student activists and vows of safeguarding freedom.
Yet in the absence of reliable opinion polls in Iran, it remains to be seen how many disaffected citizens will actually turn out to vote on June 12. -AFP