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    Middle East
     Jul 1, '13

When to trust Iran's electoral system
By Amin Shahriar

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, a hardline Shia cleric close to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and a fervent supporter of Mahmud Ahmadinejad-championed Saeed Jalili in the recent presidential contest in Iran. In the wake of the election last month, lamenting the choice of Hassan Rouhani in a crowd of followers in the religious city of Qom, the cleric asked people to brace for the next election in four years. Khamenei's tone was a great deal less hostile, as he congratulated the president-elect and requested

executive organs to cooperate fully with the victor.

Four years since the 2009 disputed presidential election in which Ahmadinejad was announced the winner, the Iranian electorate last month opted for a candidate from the other end of the political spectrum, one who is close to and supported by reformists.

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the head of the Exigency Council and arguably the second most important person in the regime, called the June 14 ballot the most democratically held election in the world. That does not quite add up with his stance regarding the 2009 poll, held by the same administration, which resulted in him being almost marginalized from most centers of power, including his chairmanship of the Assembly of Experts and his podium in Tehran Friday's prayer. At the same time, many conservatives consider the 2013 election to be a victory for the regime, saying that the lack of allegations over cheating refute all propaganda advanced by the opposition four years earlier.

Keihan Newspaper, which thought to represent the views of the leader, called for opposition leaders to be prosecuted since the results of the election had proved their 2009 claims to be unfounded. But can the success of the 2013 election really be taken to mean that the claims regarding widespread vote rigging in 2009 were utterly baseless? A definite answer is not be easy to come by, even with the benefit hindsight. Nevertheless, thorough comparison between the context in which these two polls happened can be of assistance.

In Iran, the organ in charge of holding elections is the Ministry of the Interior, controlled by the president. The election is supervised by the Guardian Council, an assembly of 12 experts half of whom are clerics appointed by the leader.

In 2009, Ahmadinejad was running for the second round, so he had the ministry under his control. At the same time, some members of the Council had almost explicitly declared sympathy for Ahmadinejad before the election, giving rise to worries and suspicion that the administration was rigging the result. Looking back at newspapers from 2009, it is clear that had been an issue of concern even months before the election.

At no time before since the revolution had the Council and the Ministry of the Interior been in such accord on who the winner of the election had to be. At the time, Ahmadinejad and the leader had perfect synergy. This did not hold true for the recent poll; the relationship between the leader and the out-going president had turned sour mainly over the disqualification of the president's closest aide, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaee, by the Guardian Council a few weeks before the election.

Given that Ahmadinejad had little vested interest, the ban on Mashaee as a candidate should have made the task of persuading him to be an accomplice to an electoral fraud incredibly grueling. It was even reported that Ahmadinejad had threatened to disclose classified information as a leverage to force the leader to intervene in favor of Rahim Mashaee. Even one Iranian News Website, Baztab, relying on intelligence from the president's inner circle, had suggested that he would unveil the truth about the 2009 vote, After a meaningful delay, Ahmadinejad denied harboring such intention. Therefore, the prospect of a conspiracy between the Interior Minister and the Guardian Council was very poor.

On the other hand, estimating a low turn out, most opinion polls right before the election clearly showed that the fate of the next president would be determined in the run-off round. This would buy conservatives one week so they did not have to worry much about losing the election on June 14.

The high turn out, however, came to as a shock to the regime's speculation and estimates. Contrary to prior interior ministry announcements, the initial outcome of the election was presented only after seven hours, about five hours later than previous records, revealing some behind the scenes negotiation and bargaining. It seemed as if the authorities were taken by surprise, unable to make a decision as to whether it was right to announce the results as they were. Ahmadinejad could have played an important role in this turn of events. In this case scenario, by not cooperating with the regime and making every effort to ensure the health of the election, Ahmadinejad was taking a revenge on the regime.

Another possible reason why the regime might have been convinced to cheat in 2009 and accept the huge cost of such action might have been the tenseness of the political scene in the previous election. In a way, in 2099 the regime had put all its eggs in the Ahmadinejad basket, making any failure to win synonymous to the failure of the regime.

Opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, exploiting the weaknesses of Ahmadinejad, in 2009 had successfully mobilized huge crowds of young people - many of whom did not believe in the basic principles of the Islamic Regime. A few days before the election, a human chain kilometers long wound down the longest street in Tehran, Vali Asr Street. The same thing happened in many other cities, bringing together millions of his supporters. From the regime's point of view, this painted a rather frightening picture of what life could be like if Mousavi won. Even though Mousavi was not elected, his mobilized fans created tension and unrest in the country for more than eight months.

Hassan Rouhani did not create the same type of hype and there were almost no street carnivals of young people taking to streets, hence the regime did not feel intimidated. Moreover, cheating is often an option only in a bipolar election where one candidate receives the wholehearted support of the system. Had there been vote-rigging in favor of any of the candidates, the other ones would have objected. Another reason why it is only ideal to cheat in a bipolar election is that, if the competition goes to a second round, the atmosphere of the contest, momentary liberties and a free press, can provide the context for social unrest. Therefore, cheating is a viable alternative only when the fate of the election is to be decided in the first round.

The question of whether the Iranian electoral system is a system that can be trusted cannot be answered without considering the people in charge of the organs responsible for calling and supervising the elections. For now, since there seems to be a divide between moderates, who are about to form the government, and the conservatives in charge of supervision, it is safe to assume that the next election will most likely not be rigged.

Amin Shahriar is the pseudonym used by an Iranian lawyer and journalist.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

(Copyright 2013 Amin Shahriar)




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