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Kai Ryssdal: “Death to potatoes” doesn’t roll off the tongue like, “yes we can,” or “are you better off today than you were four years ago.” But potatoes is the campaign slogan of the day in Iran. Presidential elections there are set for Friday. Anti-government students say President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is trying to buy votes by giving out free vegetables to the poor, hence the potato thing.
The economy is the big issue in this campaign; his critics say Ahmadinejad is messing it up. The other candidates who are running, promise, well, change you can believe in. Reese Erlich went to Tehran’s central bazaar to find out more.
REESE ERLICH: Small motorcycles piled precariously high with goods drive through narrow alleyways. They zoom past men pushing huge metal carts filled with tightly rolled Persian carpets. Usually bustling this time of year, sections of Tehran’s massive bazaar are almost empty. Majid Tehrani is prowling the alleys in search of customers.
MAJID TEHRANI: We have a collection of nomadic carpets, if it’s interesting for you. My brother’s name is in the Lonely Planet.
Once he’s convinced that selling me a carpet is a waste of time, he switches to fulminating against government economic policy.
TEHRANI: Inflation goes up every other month. It has so influenced our work. The people can not buy the carpets. They do not have enough money for spend the carpet, you know.
Tehrani says he used to support President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad but has decided to cast his vote for the leading reformist candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi. The slogan “It’s the economy stupid” isn’t trotted out much here, but Iranians get the concept. They blame the incumbent administration for 11 percent unemployment and a slow economic growth that has reached recession levels.
Shopper Masomeh Yahyaee is dressed conservatively in a black chador. She works as a clerk for a charitable organization.
Masomeh Yahyaee: Four years ago, I voted for Mr. Ahmadinejad but since then, I haven’t been happy with what he’s done. When I visit people’s homes I see the illnesses, poverty and bankruptcies caused by the recession.
She plans to vote for Mohsen Rezai, a conservative who promises strict fiscal discipline.
President Ahmadinejad draws strong support from poor Iranians, a sector of the business elite and the country’s powerful security services. Economic journalist and book author Bahman Ahmadi says the president has pursued four years of populism in which he handed out billions of dollars in subsidies to the poor. But the money wasn’t invested in creating jobs.
BAHMAN AHMADI: People say all right, he’s given us money; they don’t know that this money in their pocket causes more inflation.
Hassan Gulani has turned his cell phone shop into a volunteer Ahmadinejad campaign office. People rush about haggling over cell phone prices and then grab some election posters. Gulani admits the economy has gone south, but he says Ahmadinejad isn’t to blame.
HASSAN GULANI: He hasn’t been able to achieve his goals 100 percent because of some problems caused by other organizations, not the government. The U.S. is to blame because of its sanctions against Iran.
Ahmadinejad accuses all his opponents of corruption, while they say he is destroying the country’s economy and foreign policy. It’s not clear who the public will believe.
If no candidate wins over 50 percent of the vote on June 12, the top two contenders face a runoff one week later.
In Tehran, I’m Reese Erlich for Marketplace.
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