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Iran Election: How Rigged Was It?

Considering the evidence

June 15, 2009
Opposition presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi at a rally in Tehran today.(AFP/Getty Images)
Opposition presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi at a rally in Tehran today.(AFP/Getty Images)

Allowing that the very concept of an “election” in a totalitarian state is at most a public relations gambit designed to satisfy other countries, it’s true that Iranians cast ballots in record numbers last Friday, and it’s also true that one candidate should have walked away with more of them than others. Was it the soft-spoken intellectual who supports uranium enrichment, Mir Hossein Mousavi, or was it the flamboyant, Holocaust-denying peasant who supports uranium enrichment?

According to Ken Ballen and Patrick Doherty, two students of extremist demographics in the Middle East, what you saw was what really happened—it was all Ahmadinejad’s show. Writing in The Washington Post, they argue that the election results, if anything, undershot the mark of the incumbent’s polled popularity. Ballen and Doherty cite their own survey, conducted by A Terror Free Tomorrow: The Center for Public Opinion, part of the New America Foundation, which found that for “three weeks before the vote … Ahmadinejad [was] leading by a more than 2 to 1 margin—greater than his actual apparent margin of victory in Friday’s election.”

But this analysis has been called into question by a fellow Post writer, Jon Cohen, who blogs at Behind the Numbers. While admitting that this poll adhered to the methodological standard, Cohen points out that the so-called 2-to-1 margin was based on flimsy data: “34 percent of those polled said they’d vote for Ahmadinejad, 14 percent for Mousavi. That leaves 52 percent unaccounted for. In all, 27 percent expressed no opinion in the election, and another 15 percent refused to answer the question at all.”

Columbia professor and Middle East analyst Gary Sick calls the election a “coup” waged by the ruling regime against its own people. For Sick, the proof is in how the current cycle—the most reactionary candidate was vouchsafed a victory in advance by mullahs terrified of civil unrest—clashes with years of unexpected consequences. For instance, in 1997, the “moderate” candidate Mohammed Khatami won the presidency, much to the mullahs’ surprise, though they chose not to interfere after the fact. In 2005, when no one anticipated a hardliner victory against Rafsanjani’s touted mass appeal, Ahmadinejad became a mispronounced household name in the West. So what happened in 2009? On his blog, Sick writes: “The authorities were faced with a credible challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, who had the potential to challenge the existing power structure on certain key issues. He ran a surprisingly effective campaign, and his “green wave” began to be seen as more than a wave. In fact, many began calling it a Green Revolution. For a regime that has been terrified about the possibility of a ‘velvet revolution,’ this may have been too much.” (Judging by three days of protests in Tehran by battered and harassed students and democracy advocates, the regime may have got a velvet revolution anyway.)

Among the countervailing statistics suggesting Ahmadinejad and his clerical backers stole the thing, one set coming from the Mousavi camp itself has gained a lot of traction in cyberspace, mainly because it was allegedly leaked from the Iranian interior ministry (the same bureaucracy that warned Mousavi to cancel his scheduled protest in Tehran). By these data, Mousavi won the election handily, winning 19.1 million votes as against Ahmadinejad’s 5.7 million. The two other state-approved candidates, Mehdi Karoubi and Mohsen Rezai, won 13.4 million and 3.7 million respectively. (Karoubi and Mousavi are said to be the “reformists,” while Rezai is a hardliner like Ahmadinejad; so the takeaway here, if these numbers are accurate, is that the conservative old guard did indeed have everything to fear last Friday.)

The Guardian’s Robert Tait and Julian Borger add that these leaks were made by disgruntled public officials and that “[t]he figures have been accompanied by claims from interior ministry sources that fake statistics were fed into a software program and then distributed to vote counts among polling stations to produce a plausible outcome. The same sources have also claimed that the interior ministry’s statements announcing the results were prepared before Friday night’s count.”

But perhaps most reflective of widespread and systemic rigging is the results the Kurdish province of Iran, a region that has consistently, since the 1979 revolution, voted in small numbers for the opposition candidate (the Kurds are a much persecuted minority in Persia and don’t bother with elections that will not alter their plight). This year, apparently, they turned out overwhelmingly for Ahmadinejad.

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