"On Miscalculating an Election," by Farideh Farhi
- Middle East & North Africa
Several days after the June 12 election, Iran is still reeling in shock, anger, and turmoil with no end seemingly in sight. The conviction of a significant part of the electorate that the election was stolen, whether it was or not by any objective measures, has led to protests and demonstrations in the streets while the harsh response and clampdown on the part of riot police and vigilante forces, particularly against university students, have created an atmosphere reminiscent of revolutionary days.
At this point, the confrontation that has ensued must be seen as an event with uncertain and ultimately improvised outcome. No one, including the players confronting each other, can know in advance what the outcome will be. It is not merely a question of the relative strength of the state against the protestors. Other questions have come to the fore and are being contemplated in public, including the extent of divisions within the Iranian elite, government, and repressive forces; where the divisions run, how deep they are, and whether they will prevent the all out repression of the popular protests. Added to this complexity, as most students of social movements and protest will attest, is the reality that although these divisions were preexisting, they are also developing and changing shape in response to actions taken by multiple players.
Confrontations are occurring not only in public. Behind closed doors, for those who made the decision to claim a hasty victory for Ahmadinejad, calculations are being made about whether their rule and authority will be strengthened or undermined by standing steadfast with him. What level of force is tolerable and even possible in trying to tamp down popular protest? Is more repression in the offing, or are the fissures among the ruling elites of the Islamic republic about to crack the state open?
No matter which direction events take us though, there is no doubt that this election has been mishandled by some of the highest authorities of the Islamic Republic, and because of this they will have to pay, either by losing their legitimacy despite their staying in power, or by actually not staying in power. This election was not only widely perceived as stolen or flawed; it also generated such outrage and resentment that people seem to be willing to bear at least some costs of protest.
Interestingly, the perception of massive fraud was not necessarily the dominant explanation shared by all outside observers of Iran after the election, as various pundits and analysts began to debate whether Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had really won the election. Perhaps, it was said, Ahmadinejad’s opponents and the world had been wrongly led to believe by the focus on the enthusiasm and the carnival-like atmosphere in large cities in the last twenty days leading up to the election, particularly in the streets of affluent northern Tehran, that challenger Mir-Hossein Mussavi was going to win. Ahmadinejad after all was a populist and his strength was among the poor, in the provinces, in rural areas, and in small cities - precisely the places that are routinely ignored by those who visit Iran and are able to dispatch reports.
Such a perception would have probably remained a powerful contending narrative for outsiders had it not been so insistently rejected by those inside Iran. This narrative has been a very important component of Ahmadinejad’s campaign and presidency. He has marketed himself as the man of the people who made repeated provincial trips the hallmark of his presidency. Because of this, prior to the election, it almost turned into a truism that he would do better in smaller provincial cities and rural areas in the light of his redistributionist policies and his attention to those areas. Indeed, the contested election data released by the Interior Ministry does show that Ahmadinejad has significantly improved his vote-getting in smaller cities and rural areas in comparison with the 2005 election. Ahmadinejad supporters say that these numbers reflect the realities on the ground while his opponents see the data as made up to reflect a preconceived idea already sold.
Yet, this is where those who backed Ahmadinejad and designed his 2009 campaign as a repetition of his 2005 campaign may have miscalculated. In 2005, Ahmadinejad ran a campaign that in its second round counter-posed a presumably honest, simple and justice-oriented man against the opulent, powerful figure of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the current head of the Expediency Discernment Council and of the Council of Experts.
Ahmadinejad’s 2005 platform worked beautifully because he was the outsider running against the establishment. In 2009 he tried to do the same by arguing that all three candidates running against him were effectively Hashemi Rafsanjani’s proxies in the race, intent on bringing back to power the old guard that had lost its grip on power during his presidency.
The 2009 election turned out differently because a combination of competition between the two reformist candidates and increased outrage at Ahmadinejad’s blatant (and much discussed) misrepresentations of the state of the Iranian economy, of his own record, and of past declarations during television debates had energized the electorate in the last couple of weeks of the campaign in ways not foreseen by either candidates or pundits. The animus against Ahmadinejad and savvy campaigns run by his two main candidates – Mussavi and Mehdi Karrubi – did the unthinkable and, if the total number of votes announced by the Interior Ministry is to be accepted, brought into the electoral process at least an additional 11 million voters out of the announced total eligible electorate of 46.2 million.
In retrospect, it was precisely this extensive mobilization that must have frightened the hard-line sectors of the Iranian elite in general and the office of leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in particular. It was enough to elicit their nod for what is now perceived to be the most blatant election fraud in the Islamic Republic’s history, leading to the hasty announcement of Ahmadinejad’s landslide victory by an unbelievable 63 percent of the vote.
Electoral manipulation – or engineering as it is sometimes called in the country – is not uncommon in Iran. It is part and parcel of a competitive process and has become increasingly sophisticated in recent years in order to prevent a repeat of the 1997 election, when reformist Mohammad Khatami won by a landslide. At that time, the unprecedented number of people participating in the election (79%) effectively prevented large-scale fiddling with the ballots.
Prior to that election, the two most prominent leaders of Iran – then president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and leader Ali Khamenei – had been informed of the political mood in the country by the security and intelligence apparatus and came out to assure the public that its preference on Election Day would be respected. Undoubtedly, concern about possible riots was what brought the two leaders together.
Since then, stricter vetting by the Guardian Council – intended to demoralize voters about the choices available to them - has been used to keep voter turnout in both parliamentary and presidential elections somewhere in the 50 to 60 percent range. Such turnout has proven manageable to conservatives who can always rely on a loyal political base turning out at the polls and on friendly institutions to win such elections with minimal tinkering.
This election was different and uncontrollable. The decision to manipulate election results in a brazen fashion seems to have been taken in advance, as evidenced by the ransacking of the offices of reformist candidates even before the polls were closed and by the concerted effort to inhibit the communication system of the country, which gives prominence to text messaging and use of mobile phones. The wholesale arrest of reformist leaders and the immediate presence of security forces and vigilantes in the streets all suggest a prior decision.
This also suggests another major difference with 1997: a clear parting of the two major icons of the post-Khomeini Islamic republic. Hashemi Rafsanjani, who had chosen to support the candidate most likely to successfully challenge Ahmadinejad, warned against the possibility of fraud prior to the election and questioned Ahmadinejad attacks against him in an unprecedented public letter, while Khamenei chose to endorse the results, calling it in a written statement a “divine miracle,” in an unusually speedy fashion even before the Guardian Council had the chance to certify the results as required by law.
Khamenei’s decision to ignore Hashemi Rafsanjani’s warning will be assessed in the coming days as a marker for his ability to use “correct political and social perspicacity, prudence, courage, management of sufficient power” to lead the country; characteristics specified as qualifications for leadership by Section 3 of Article 109 of the Iran’s Constitution.
It will probably be a while before we know whose idea it was to manipulate the election results in such a brazen way. Those who planned and implemented it in all likelihood thought the large turnout made a subtle manipulation of the results impossible and decided to go for broke. Such brazenness was probably deemed necessary as a show of force, meant to make sure that the chunk of the electorate that is usually silent in Iran but had turned vocal in this election would again become silent, apolitical, and cynical in future elections. The assumption was that even if the electorate objected, it could be cowed into accepting the results with minimal use of violence.
This was a miscalculation of major proportions because it did not foresee the shock and anger many felt when the results were announced hastily and their willingness to take risks in a sustained fashion, and because significant players of the Iranian politics such as Hashemi Rafsanjani – who has been conspicuously absent from public view since the election – have effectively been forced to fight behind the scenes for their political lives by drawing from the pool of resources they have developed during their years in politics.
As the head of the Assembly of Experts, Hashemi Rafsanjani still retains the power to call into question the leader’s management of the crisis. As a leading cleric, he also has close ties to Iran’s major sources of religious emulation, none of which have so far congratulated Ahmadinejad for his election.
The decision by all of Ahmadinejad’s opponents to lodge complaints against the results and, most importantly, Mussavi and Karrubi’s decision not to back down and to continue to call for people’s peaceful presence in the streets have also raised the sakes for everyone involved. All three opponents of Ahmadinejad seem genuinely shocked by the extent to which Khamenei was willing to act to crush them by orchestrating an overwhelming electoral victory for Ahmadinejad. This has strengthened their resolve to see this confrontation through and to keep up pressure to save Iran from what they see now as a more threatening and aggressive conservative cabal. Meanwhile there is no guarantee that Ahmadinejad or Khamenei will be willing to back down either.
Elections have been at the core of Islamic Republic’s claim to legitimacy as a political system. There is no doubt that some individuals will have to pay for this miscalculation and the systemic inability to manage a critical election. The issue at hand is who. The answer lies in the outcome of the power conflict that is not only being played out on the streets of Tehran and several other large cities but also at the highest levels of Iran’s political structure.
 Glen Kessler and Jon Cohen, “Signs of Fraud Abound, But Not Hard Evidence.” Washington Post, June 16, 2009. Also see Ken Ballen and Patrick Doherty, “Iranian People Speak.” Washington Post, June 15, 2009.