Is the election pitting the poor vs. the middle class?
Every day this seems more like the real story of the 2009 election. Class lines are more clearly drawn in this election than in the past. The common political narrative of reformers vs. conservatives is good description but not good political analysis. Political leanings have social and economic roots that makes them sensitive to the internal dynamics of the society. There are two fault lines that run deep in the Iranian society–the rural vs. urban and the poor vs. the middle class–both of which seem to be reflected in the political divisions that have come to the fore in this election. Crude personal observations (backed by TV images!) suggest that the supporters of the two leading candidates are socially diverse: the poor (and the rural?) are more likely to vote for Mr. Ahmadinejad and the middles class in either location is for Mr. Moussavi.
If not more accurate, this way of looking at voters is at least more interesting and informative than the reformers-conservatives dichotomy. It is easier to discuss and do research on the relative size of social classes than on political leaning. It is also easier to guess what it is that they demand from their political leaders, which lets one to think about how likely are these wishes to be satisfied. There was little of this type of thinking for the reform movement that swept into power in 1997, which is why people were surprised when the movement fizzled and broke many hearts.
How do reformers of 1997 compare with those in 2009? It is safe to assume that the followers of Mr. Moussavi (as well as Mr. Karrubi) are the heirs to Mr. Khatami’s supporters. Are reformers stronger now than they were back in 1997, when they garnered 70% of the votes?
As readers of this blog know, how many people are counted as poor in any givne year is in dispute. Ironically, Mr. Moussavi’s supporters who argue that upward of a third of the population is in poverty are unwittingly betting on Mr. Ahmadinejad’s victory! (A report on Sunday’s Abrar Eghtesadi reiterated the claims of high poverty rates.) Using the international standard of $2 perday, less than 10% of the population is poor. That is a big difference in terms of potential support for Mr. Ahmadinejad. Either way, the share of the poor has not changed much since 1997.
By contrast the middle class has grown considerably. Using fairly uncontroversial criteria, I have done some back of the envelope calculation (figuratively speaking, of course, because you can’t run Stata on the back of an envelope!) to calculate the size of the middle class in 1997 and 2007. I define the middle class as being in a household with at least $10 per person per day expenditures (PPP dollars) and with at least a basic education (primary). I allow for some substitution between the two following the multidimensional poverty literature (Maasoumi and Lugo). According to this criteria, in the ten years since Khatami’s election in 1997 the middle class has grown from about 26% of the population to 46%. This would just about double their number, from 16 million to 32 million. In short, about 16 million from the ranks of the poor have joined the middle class! Will they then lean toward the reformers?
If you buy the poor vs. middle class division, and agree with my calculation, you can do your own thinking about how the political outlook and the wishes of the poor differ from the middle class. I like to think that the middle class is more interested in opportunities for productive work and less handouts from the state. If that is the case, the “reform” candidates should be more popular now than they were in 1997 when the reform movement was born.