Iran's Stolen Election
07 Jul 2009 20:27
By AHMAD SALAMATIAN
Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, gave this injunction to members of the government nine months before the country's presidential election on 12 June: "Do not behave as though your mandate has only a few months left. Prepare yourselves for five more years in office!"
Khamenei showed no qualms over stating his wish that his protege, the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, should serve a second term. This is a clear demonstration of the responsibility the Supreme Leader bears for the current crisis. It stems in large measure from his decision to consolidate his authority, get rid of his enemies -- including those in positions of power -- and block all attempts at reform.
The 2005 presidential election had provided him with a starting point. By the end of reformist Mohammed Khatami's second presidential term, the public had become very disillusioned with him: Under the reformists there had been steps towards liberalisation but they had proved unable to tackle the country's economic and social problems.
Eight presidential candidates had been authorised to stand in 2005 and, in spite of a relatively high turnout (62.8%), none won an overall majority in the first round. This meant a second round of voting, for the first time in an Iranian presidential election. Ahmadinejad, then mayor of Tehran, had polled just 5.7m votes out of the 29.4m votes cast in the first round. But in the second he won, beating both the reformists, whose camp was split, and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the unpopular former president.
Ahmadinejad promised the electorate a fresh start. This was never very likely given that he had the backing of Iran's military, security forces and propaganda machine, and was also supported by the Supreme Leader's lucrative charitable foundations. But his populist rhetoric, focused on the notion of "justice," proved highly effective as US interventionism, particularly in the war against Iraq in 2003, had stoked up nationalist feelings and even xenophobia.
Four years on, Ahmadinejad's strategy was in little doubt: It was to block progress towards reform and marginalise the Supreme Leader's former ally Rafsanjani, who had by then become an irritant. But Ahmadinejad's aggressive tone and disastrous management of the economy had built up a huge coalition opposed to him winning a second term. Its members come from across Iranian society -- from the upper echelons of power to the lowest rungs of society. Reservations have even been expressed by Osoulgarayan [Principlists], the umbrella group that brings together Iran's fundamentalists, which backed Ahmadinejad in the second round in 2005.
And when Khatami again put his name forward, he was greeted enthusiastically during his short campaign in March in Iran's southern provinces. But the state press launched a virulent campaign against him: the editor of Kayhan, the Supreme Leader's personal representative, predicted Khatami would suffer the same fate as Benazir Bhutto (assassinated in Pakistan in the run-up to elections). Faced with these threats -- which the Supreme Leader refused to condemn -- Khatami withdrew.
Meanwhile, when two conservatives close to Khamenei -- Mohammad Ghalibaf, Tehran's mayor, and Ali Larijani, speaker of the parliament, who had both stood in 2005 -- showed signs of putting themselves forward in this year's election in the hope of averting electoral disaster for their side, they came into direct conflict with the Supreme Leader.
Back from the wilderness
The way was now open for Mir Hossein Mousavi to make his return from the political wilderness. Mousavi, who had been prime minister from 1981 until the post was abolished in 1989, presented himself as the compromise candidate, a "reformer who stresses the fundamental values" of the Islamic revolution. He sought to unite not only the reformists but also those in Osoulgarayan who wouldn't support a second term for Ahmadinejad.
Having led the government during the long war against Iraq and been involved in decision-making in the wake of the revolution, no one could call him a western liberal. The United States has even accused him of sponsoring the attack on the US marines base in Beirut in 2003, which resulted in 240 deaths. However, Mousavi has matured and -- like many of the protagonists in the Islamic Revolution of 1978-9 -- he believes that the regime must be open to change.
The Supreme Leader took a different view. Eight of the 12-member Guardian Council, which is responsible for selecting "acceptable" candidates for the presidential election, came out in favour of Ahmadinejad and played for as much time as it could before approving any other candidates. It prolonged the uncertainty in order to limit the time available for campaigning.
Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad had been campaigning all over the country for months, benefiting from press support as well as that of the Supreme Leader, not to mention state funding. It was not until the last possible day that the Guardian Council approved the four other candidates in the presidential race. The four (all men) were picked from a field of 475 (42 of whom were women).
The architects of this plan believed they had everything worked out. They left two reformist candidates in the race -- Mousavi and the former speaker Mehdi Karroubi -- in the belief that they would cancel each other out. Also in the running was the conservative, Mohsen Rezai, the former leader of the Revolutionary Guard, who stood as an independent.
And so Iran plunged into a breakneck election campaign that lasted just 22 days. It would overturn all its organisers' plans and cause a seismic shock at the heart of the regime. Before the campaign officially began, state television and radio had given no airtime at all to the reformist candidates. This didn't stop them making daily accusations about their real or imaginary internal squabbles. The right of reply was refused. But, in the hope of curtailing the debate, national TV eventually decided to televise face-to-face encounters. The producers of the programmes gave each candidate's logo a different, randomly chosen colour. Mousavi got green -- hence the subsequent talk of a "green revolution."
During these programmes the whole process went into overdrive. From the outset, Ahmadinejad chose attack as the best means of defence. Tens of millions of Iranians stayed up late to watch debates that were more fiercely polemical than anything they had ever seen before. They heard the highest authorities in the land accused of corruption and the president himself called a liar. Ahmadinejad made accusations against Rafsanjani, prompting him to write an open letter of protest to the Supreme Leader.
The debates showed the extent to which Iranians are thirsty for freedom. It even looked as though Iranian society was undergoing a democratic change. The aggressive rhetoric and usual dogma of official pronouncements suddenly sounded hollow. When forced to drop the rhetoric, Ahmadinejad fell back on figures and economic trends, which his opponents immediately pounced on as fabrications.
His opponents managed to get inflation, unemployment and Iran's disastrous economy onto the agenda. The heated nature of the debates encouraged expectations of a high turnout at the election. That posed a threat to the Supreme Leader's plans; and it also exposed a fundamental contradiction in the Islamic regime -- its "double legitimacy." This was neatly encapsulated in a cartoon in the International Herald Tribune on 24 June. Under the heading Theocracy explained, it shows Ayatollah Khamenei telling two voters: "You vote, God decides."
In 1979, the preliminary draft submitted to the new republic's first constituent assembly provided for the establishment of presidential power by popular mandate (article 6). But in the name of divine sovereignty, this assembly -- whose members were mainly clerics -- imposed a supervisory religious role (velayat-e faqih or Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists) (article 5). Those aspects of the president's role that would have allowed him the genuine exercise of power were effectively expropriated by a Supreme Leader, a religious figure with absolute control over legislative and executive functions as well as the judiciary (article 57).
It is the Supreme Leader who defines the entire framework of politics in Iran. He is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. He has the power to declare war and to order a general mobilisation. He decides when to hold referendums and he appoints the religious members of the Guardian Council. He is in charge of the judiciary and director of the organisation that runs the state-controlled broadcasting monopoly. He is commander of the Revolutionary Guard and of the security forces. He coordinates the three branches of power and arbitrates in cases of conflict. In certain circumstances he can even go beyond the rules of the constitution and indeed those of sharia. As the representative of the Hidden Imam on Earth, the Supreme Leader's powers know almost no limit.
The Iranian president, though the second most important person in the country, is only responsible for the day-to-day running of economic and social affairs. And even then he is under the very close scrutiny of the Supreme Leader and non-elected bodies that the Supreme Leader controls.
Nevertheless, universal suffrage gives the office of president a democratic legitimacy. As a result, the presidential elections every four years have a significance beyond that of choosing who will hold the post; they allow the expression of the popular will, however restricted and browbeaten it may be. The conflict of legitimacy between election by universal suffrage and the politico-religious institutions of the state are at the heart of the drama which is currently unfolding.
In February 1979, in the wake of the revolution, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr was elected the first president of the republic. There were 95 candidates. A conflict with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini led to his deposition in June 1981 in circumstances reminiscent of the current situation in Iran. The two presidential terms served by the current Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, between 1981 and 1989, during the Iran-Iraq war, were also marked by this tension within the regime. Khomeini effectively imposed Mousavi as prime minister and confined Khamenei to a purely formal role.
Khomeini, whose religious authority had been uncontested, died in 1989. The choice of a new Supreme Leader posed problems. Ali Khamenei, a hodjatoleslam, was promoted to ayatollah overnight. It was as if a priest in the Catholic Church had become Pope in the space of 24 hours. Khamenei owed his elevation in part to Rafsanjani, who assumed the role of president.
Rafsanjani's two terms as president (1989-97) weren't without their power struggles but they didn't lead to serious crises. The restriction of the number of candidates authorised to stand and the fact that they were only on the ballot paper for appearances' sake meant that voter turnout dropped.
Then in 1997 the turnout jumped to 79.9%. Mohammad Khatami stood as a reformist and beat the Supreme Leader's candidate. It was a victory that would have been unthinkable in most of the Middle East, where only the official candidate ever wins. In Iran it thrust the conflict between religious and democratic power into the spotlight.
Khatami's two terms of office and his attempts at reform were met by constant blocking tactics from the Supreme Leader, who viewed the challenge as a threat to his own power. And so, in 2005, Khamenei's solution was to try to impose his own candidate -- Ahmadinejad. For the first time in the republic's history, a second round of voting was required. But as a result of divisions in the reformist camp and the rejection of Rafsanjani, the Supreme Leader's candidate came out on top. Four years later, against the advice of some of his close advisers, Khamenei decided to support Ahmadinejad again, regardless of the cost.
On 12 June, polling stations were crowded, but the election seemed to be passing off peacefully. But at 5pm, before the polling stations closed, the head of Tehran's security forces announced on television that he was deploying his forces on the ground. Then the other candidates' representatives were removed from polling stations and locations where the count was taking place. Joint protest from the three other candidates had no effect.
Silence descended on the room at the interior ministry where the results were due to be declared. Meanwhile, press agencies that supported Ahmadinejad, such as the Fars agency, began to issue improbable figures. There was astonishment a few hours later when the interior ministry confirmed these figures as correct. Results then began to be issued in blocks of 2m votes, without any reference to where in the country those votes had been cast. Then, early in the morning of 13 June, after several hours of silence, they switched to announcing results in blocks of 5m. Every result appeared first in a part of the media that supported the president before being announced by the interior ministry.
As the total number of votes counted rose to 39m (a turnout of 85%), the percentage won by each candidate remained exactly the same throughout the night. In other words, throughout the whole country, irrespective of local circumstances, the electorate had voted in exactly the same proportion for each candidate. Results broken down by province weren't released for another 10 days.
According to the official figures, Ahmadinejad received 24,527,516 votes (62.63%). In other words, after four years in power and with a deeply unpopular economic record, he had managed to add some 5.75m votes to the total he achieved in the first round in 2005. By contrast, his opponent Mehdi Karroubi got just 333,635 votes, 15 times fewer than he received in 2005. Even the Iranian authorities themselves mentioned "irregularities" concerning 3m votes.
Nothing short of a miracle
For those who suspected that fraud on a massive scale had taken place, there was further fuel to add to the fire. According to a study by Chatham House in London, in two provinces the number of votes cast was greater than the total number of eligible voters. In order to achieve the result he claimed, Ahmadinejad would have had to secure not only the conservative and centrist vote, but also nearly half of the reformist vote in one-third of the country's provinces. Yet contrary to received opinion, conservative candidates have always fared less well in the countryside, as the election results in 1997, 2001 and 2005 demonstrated.
The Chatham House study even showed that the conservatives tend to get their worst results in the country, especially in regions with minority populations, which are more suspicious of central power. This makes Ahmadinejad's majority nothing short of a miracle. More generally, the working classes in particular have suffered most from economic policies that have led to inflation over 20% and mass unemployment that has hit young people the hardest.
The day after Ahmadinejad's victory celebrations, amid congratulations from the Supreme Leader, millions of demonstrators in Tehran and around the country protested at what they saw as a stolen election. This protest, which was largely confined to the middle classes, would probably have been more problematic if the Bush administration, with its sabre-rattling rhetoric and unconditional support for Israel, had still been in the White House. As it was, Barack Obama's desire for dialogue has, in part, freed Iranians from fear of the United States and its interference. Unlike his European counterparts, Obama has managed to strike a balance between interfering in the affairs of another state and condemning repression.
The Islamic Republic is experiencing the worst crisis in its history. But the outcome of the clashes in Tehran will affect more than just Iran's future. A hardening of attitudes within the country is also likely to lead to a more hardline attitude to the West and make a dialogue between Washington and Tehran that much more difficult. -- translated by Gerge Miller
Ahmad Salamatian is a former member of the Iranian parliament.
(c) 2009 Le Monde diplomatique - distributed by Agence Global