High hopes collide with reality ahead of Iran vote

Tehran (AFP) –


As Iranians vote on Friday for a new parliament and the clerics who choose the Islamic republic's supreme leader, many poorer people believe that major change is unlikely to happen.

"The people have so many problems they can't be counted," said Yadollah Sabzi, a small trader in the busy Molavi district of south Tehran.

His is a gesture of stoic defiance more than anything else, in an area of rundown buildings and small colourful shops.

Overloaded handcarts and rusty cars jam the streets, as women in long black veils do their shopping.

Molavi is in stark contrast with the visible wealth of north Tehran.

There, Maserati and Porsche sports cars, chic fashion and modern architecture characterise the Western decadence that the late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini railed against.

Iran's nuclear deal with world powers, which lifted sanctions and ended a 13-year crisis that has badly battered the economy, had raised hopes of better times ahead.

But amid much hype about the diplomacy, expectations are now colliding with the realisation that improvements cannot come overnight.

Smiling and shy, Sabzi, 34, stands in front of his shop -- basically a narrow corridor -- where he sells rice and beans in bulk.

- Cash handouts no solution -

On the wall are portraits of Khomeini, who died in 1989, and his successor Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader ever since.

Some 55 million voters are eligible to choose members of parliament and the clerics who make up the Assembly of Experts, a powerful group that monitors Khamenei's work and will also choose his successor.

"We're not asking them to change our personal lives, but the things that belong to everyone, like roads and housing," said Sabzi, who is originally from a Kurdish-speaking area near Iran's western border with Iraq.

Many Molavi handcart operators come from his home town and others that suffered badly in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war launched by the now executed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

The weight of poverty and being in the rock-bottom social class is bending the people's backs, Sabzi lamented, arguing that cash handouts are not the solution.

He was referring to the signature programme of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the hardline president between 2005 and 2013, of doling out monthly cash to all Iranians.

Although some members of higher paid professions have been deemed ineligible for the handouts by President Hassan Rouhani's government, the scheme remains in place and the vast majority of citizens still receive the money.

"Cash allowances have made us lazier," Sabzi said of the 450,000 rials ($15, 13 euros) a head allowance, which can be a significant sum to workers earning the equivalent of around $200 a month.

- Unemployment: 'It's awful' -

You can "pay a bill or two with it", but officials should work to address the real problems, he said.

Nearby, 40-year-old housewife Fatemeh Hodjati, walking with her small daughter and a friend, was initially reluctant to speak on camera, but relented when she heard it was not domestic media for broadcast inside Iran.

"Prices have gone really high" and it's "very tough" for the poor ahead of Nowruz, the Persian New Year beginning on March 20, she said.

"Jobs have dropped in the last year and there's a lot of unemployment. It's awful."

Still, Hodjati hoped there would be a high turnout on Friday because "now the sanctions have been removed, maybe people will have more trust in elections".

Not everyone shares her enthusiasm for the ballot box.

Qassem Akbari, 29, the father of a baby girl born a few months ago, said he has "never voted before because I don't think it's effective".

Squeezed into the tiny shop he shares with another salesman, and sipping Persian tea from tiny glasses, he said that even if he were to vote, it would only be because he believes job creation should rank above all other policies.

"There are many problems, but creating jobs is the most important thing," Akbari said.

Asked why he would not be voting on Friday he responded bleakly.

"Anyone wanting to get into parliament thinks more about themselves than the people."