Much furor is being expressed by all sides, foreign and domestic, regarding the outcome of the 2009 Iranian presidential elections held on June 12. The rapid announcement of the total results in a mere few hours after the closing of the polls came as a shock to the supporters of Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the main ‘reformist’ challenger to Ahmadinejad. Since then, there have been massive spontaneous demonstrations in Tehran as well as in other major cities, such as Shiraz, Tabriz and Rasht. At least one person has been killed in the clashes between the police and Mousavi supporters.
So, let’s put things in some context.
The presidential elections of June 12 were held within a theocratic system. In this system, in order to run for a political office, candidates must swear allegiance to the theocratic setup. From its inception, therefore, the theocracy has divided the entire population into two major political groups: khodi (literally meaning ‘of us,’ those who support the theocracy) and the gheyre-khodi (the others). This is the exact language used, and participation in the elections are reserved purely for the benefit of the khodis (those who believe in the system), who have been divided into different camps from the beginning of the theocracy. In older days, they were split between the left wing, conservative and the pragmatist camps, and more recently the opposing factions have changed some of their tactics and underlying economic policies, and are organized into the ‘conservative’ and ‘reformist’ camps. Within each camp, there are further divisions.
Within this setup, I for one can state without qualifications that ‘elections’ cannot mean anything but a contest between candidates that are absolutely acceptable to a theocratic establishment. This, in turn, means that ALL elections, to varying degrees, are stolen elections, since the participation of a huge majority of Iranians as candidates, by the theocratic Constitution, has been preempted from way in advance. The right of participation in presidential elections in Iran, for the past three decades, has been stolen and securely put aside as the privilege of a tiny minority of men only.
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Now, let’s look at the circumstances of these particular 2009 ‘elections’, bearing in mind again that the election process was and has always been un-free to begin with.
First, let’s look at one particular opinion poll that is claimed to have predicted a landslide win by Ahmadinejad: the poll taken by The Center for Public Opinion.
This poll, taken between May 11 and May 20, indicates 34% support for Ahmadinejad and 14% for Mousavi; Karrubi and Rezaee receive respectively 2% and 1%. However, 27% of those polled did not know whom they supported. Of those who ‘did not know,’ more than 60%, according to their answers to other questions, were characterized by the pollsters as ‘reformist minded.’ Further, 22% of the respondents are unaccounted for (apparently 15% refused to answer any questions, but the remaining 7% is unexplained). That brings the potential split between the two leading candidates at about 45% for Ahmadinejad and about 30% for Mousavi (discounting the 22% unaccounted).
Further, as the pollsters admitted when releasing their findings, the most likely scenario was, in their view, one in which a second round would be necessary, since they couldn’t see anybody having the potential to sweep the elections in the first round.
Another major factor ignored is that the opinion poll was conducted between May 11th and 20th. In politics, a lot happens in a three-week time period. The presidential campaigns (particularly of the ‘reformists’) really took off during the last three weeks, and particularly the last ten days of the campaign period. We know how opinion polls of equivalent elections in the U.S., for example, go on daily and hourly until the very last hours of campaigning. No such follow-up data were available here, and the most telling data (those from ‘the eve’ of the elections) are totally missing. Anybody observing the elections could see how much more raucous the campaigns got as the closing of the campaign period approached.
Now, I will not go into the veracity of the kind of knowledge you can get based on an opinion poll of a mere 1,001 people (220 of whom are unaccounted for) in a country with an eligible electorate of more than fifty-five million people.
Likewise, I won’t over-generalize my own paranoia about total strangers calling to ask very directed questions (even when it happens in the U.S.). But, I can easily imagine that if I were sitting in my living room in Iran and got a phone call from a total stranger claiming to be a pollster, I’d be very unlikely to give any truthful answers that might piss off somebody listening in on my phone conversation, a very realistic fear felt by just about everybody in Iran.
So, at least in my book, all the above considerations taken together mean that the actual numbers (of supporters for Mousavi and Ahmadinejad) must have been closer than suggested by the above opinion poll, meaning much closer than the 2-to-1 outcome in favor of Ahmadinejad. In the least, I can be sure that a ‘landslide’ was not a highly probable outcome.
But, we can also look at the behavior of the functionaries of the ruling class in Iran for better indications of whether or not ‘vote rigging’ took place.
Before the June 12 elections, both Karrubi and Mousavi drafted and proposed to the Guardian Council a set of additional protocols for assuring a clean process during the elections. Obviously they had realistic fears of fraud. But the Supreme Leader rejected the adoption of any extra precautions, insinuating that the election procedures were transparent enough as is, in effect chiding the two candidates for casting doubts on the cleanliness of the procedures already in place.
Some of the procedures, however, were in fact very faulty. According to reports, prior to the elections, “Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi sent a letter to Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, chair of the country’s powerful Guardian Council, citing discrepancies in the run-up to the election. According to the letter, the actual number of ballots printed for the first round of voting is 59.6 million, but the Interior Ministry officially says the number is 56 million.” (“Reformist candidates complain of too many ballots,” Inter Press Service, June 10, 2009) Meaning, there were at least a few million extra ballots hiding somewhere. Given that more than fifteen million eligible voters did not vote, that amounts to about eighteen million ballots that could be had fraudulently.
The same report also states: “Ali Akbar Mohtashami Pour and Morteza Alviri, of the Mousavi and Karroubi campaigns’ committees on poll supervision, also said that the number of electoral stamps circulating is ‘twice the number of polling sites plus 10 percent.’ These extra stamps were a particular worry since, it was argued, any attempted vote rigging could be organized, “through use of extra ballots and stamps and through use of additional boxes and mobile ballot boxes, especially as we have been informed that soldiers’ birth certificates have been collected at military bases.”
Also, from the above-cited IPS report: “Saeed Razavi Faghih, a spokesperson for the Karroubi campaign, told IPS, ‘Inviting the [pro-Ahmadinejad] Revolutionary Guard Corps to supervise ballot-box security instead of the police has raised serious doubts for us.’” And these were some of the red flags thrown up before the elections.
The Iranian filmmaker, Makhmalbaf, who worked with Mousavi’s campaign, in interviews to different news outlets, including BBC and Radio Farda, has claimed that Mousavi’s campaign received phone calls from interior ministry on the night of the election day informing them that they looked bound for victory, telling them they could go ahead with preparing their victory speech, but also asking them to not gloat too much, so as to not humiliate Ahmadinejad supporters. If Ahmadinejad were headed for a clear ‘landslide’, why would the interior ministry make such a phone call?
Another suspicious move was Ahmadinejad campaign’s statement on the night of the elections, declaring that his victory was supported by the other conservative candidate in the race, Mohsen Rezaee. The next day, however, it became clear that was the opposite of truth, as Rezaee came out expressing serious doubts about the announced results, and by Sunday (June 14th) he along with Mousavi filed a complaint with the Guardian Council (responsible for certifying election results), demanding that he wants to see the serial numbers for the ballots cast. He must know a thing or two about how you can get cheated. And again, this is Mohsen Rezaee we are talking about: a former head of the Revolutionary Guards, a staunch supporter of the theocratic system in Iran — no imperialist stooge.
Another irregularity was that, as per usual, the results were not certified (before being announced) by the Guardian Council, constitutionally recognized as the body responsible for overseeing the elections, for double checking all the ballots and announcing the official results, usually after a three-day period (to clear up any possible complaints).
What did happen was an announcement made by the Interior minister (not the Guardian Council) in a very hurried form, and despite the fact that there were loud complaints still unresolved regarding the elections just held. Subsequently, when reformist supporters took to the streets to express their outrage, more than a hundred reformist leaders were detained over the weekend.
The very loud and public objections voiced initially by Mousavi are now voiced by all three candidates who ran against Ahmadinejad. They are also joined by a large number of parliamentarians and groups of clerics, even in Qom, the most conservative of all theocratic bastions.
Given that within the already highly restrictive electoral procedures, the establishment’s conventional protocols were changed so much so that it has created such a large outcry, one is quite right to suspect something was done to tilt the results, in an unfair fashion, toward a pre-determined outcome.
So, it is certainly not the case that Mousavi, America’s candidate, and his middle class, designer-eyeglass-wearing supporters were the only ‘sore losers.’ A large part of the establishment is up in arms. Otherwise, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei would not have felt it necessary to issue a public statement insisting that the Guardian Council look ‘carefully’ into the allegations of vote fraud.
News reports are now saying that the Guardian Council will indeed look into the matter. According to PressTV, “The spokesman of Iran’s Guardian Council says the body will issue its ruling on the results of the country’s presidential elections within 10 days.”
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Now, it is of course true that imperialist mainstream media have their own agenda and will take advantage of the situation on the streets of Iran. But, what is new there? All manner of media will (as they always do) look at any situation in Iran and agitate their respective audiences in whichever direction they please.
And we on the left also have to do our part in contextualizing the events. Just because the imperialist media are screaming foul, it does not mean that everything to do with the just-concluded ‘elections’ were A-OK. Also, the flip side is, I doubt very much that a large segment of the Iranian ruling theocrats are collaborating with the imperialists to overthrow themselves!
So, we need to see what is going on. I think to call it a soft-coup is actually more appropriate than to call it vote rigging. ‘Vote rigging’ has meaning when the election process is at least half-free; when explicit religious requirements are put upon candidates before they can even run for office, this does not meet the minimum requirements for an honest election process. What happens in Iranian elections is a very careful selection process, first carried out from above by the Guardian Council, followed by a vote-getting process, which approves one of the already selected.
So, ‘rigging’ votes is explicitly inscribed into the elections, period. A majority of the Iranian population is legally banned from running for the office of president (no women allowed, ever). I am therefore at a loss to see such a process as anything but fundamentally rigged.
Those on the Left in the U.S. who are screaming in defense of the ‘integrity’ of the elections in Iran, and talk about our duty to ‘respect the decision of the Iranian people’ assign unrealistic characteristics that do not exist in the Iranian elections.
I wonder how the U.S. Left would characterize any elections in America which, first and foremost, required of the candidates an explicitly avowed allegiance to the Bible and the Lord Jesus Christ (with a particular denomination’s scriptures, mind you), and banned all women, all other religious tendencies, and ALL secularists from running for the post of president? The fact that the Left cannot mentally juxtapose the two situations points in my view to latent racism. The thinking is akin to absolute cultural relativism, which assumes that surely those rag-heads over in Eye-ran don’t mind a theocracy. “After all, it is in their culture!”
Well, it is not in our culture, and we do mind theocracy. The evidence of it is on the streets of Iran right now.
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There is a history to remember here; the history of skin-shedding that this theocracy has witnessed. Here, I am not talking about all the thousands of the opposition members executed, or jailed and tortured or else chased away. I am talking about the internal purges.
One famous coup d’état against one of their own that took place very early in the life of the Islamic Republic occurred in June 1981, with the ‘impeachment’ of Banisadr, the first post-revolution president, by the parliament at Khomeini’s instigation. (Banisadr went underground and eventually escaped from Iran and currently lives in France) Later, in April 1982 there was a coup against Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, a close aid to Khomeini during his exile in France, and a foreign minister. He was accused of plotting to kill Khomeini and summarily executed.
There was also a famous coup against Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, one-time designated successor to Grand Ayatollah Khomeini for the position of Supreme Leader. Montazeri had both revolutionary and impeccable religious credentials (as a Grand Ayatollah, which is like a PhD in the field). Despite (because of?) his supremely high qualifications, he was causing constant headaches for the heads of the theocratic setup. In an interview published in Keyhan, “in early 1989, [Montazeri] criticized Khomeini in language that is said to have sealed “his political fate”:
The denial of people’s rights, injustice and disregard for the revolution’s true values have delivered the most severe blows against the revolution. Before any [post-war] reconstruction, there must first be a political and ideological reconstruction . . . This is something that the people expect of a leader.
Further, when after the end of the Iran-Iraq War, a massive wave of rushed political executions engulfed Iran’s political prison houses, Montazeri was among the most high-ranking critics of these mass killings. The Wikipedia entry for him explains further:
Still worse was the publication abroad and broadcast on BBC of [Montazeri’s] letters condemning post-war wave of executions in March . Montazeri also criticized Khomeini’s fatwa ordering the killing of author Salman Rushdie, saying: “People in the world are getting the idea that our business in Iran is just murdering people.
By the end of March 1989, Khomeini had heard enough, and declared that Montazeri had ‘resigned’ from his position. Montazeri went off graciously asking his supporters to not utter a word in his support. Khamenei, at the time a mid-ranking Hojatoleslam (equivalent of an undergrad degree), was speedily promoted in religious ranks to an Ayatollah so as to qualify him for the position of vali-e faqih (guardian jurist), and that’s how the current Supreme Leader Khamenei got to be supreme.
We can conclude, then, that skin shedding, metamorphosis, periodical transformations and adaptations to the perceived conditions in the world are a systemic characteristic of the rulers of the Iranian theocracy.
The reason I say that a ‘coup’ is more appropriate to talk about than ‘vote rigging’ is because it’s more realistic. I think the government of Iran realizes that despite Obama’s reconciliatory gestures, the overall posture of the imperialists toward Iran has not changed fundamentally, so they don’t view this as a time to lower their guards.
The system, as it is, cannot be reformed without some major pain. The most basic reforms of any kind and magnitude would open up a wide spectrum of socio-political spheres that need serious reconsideration. More importantly, any reform of the existing constitution will eventually have to be approved first by the Guardian Council (a non-elected, appointed body), and eventually by the Supreme Leader. This means, that unless the post of the Supreme Leader, along with any structures standing above the parliament, are abolished (in effect, destroying the system), all attempts at ‘reform’ will remain highly moot.
So, from the regime’s point of view, it is best that any talk of ‘reforms’ stop for the time being (if not forever), so that the state can concentrate on more existential worries. Hence, the speedy announcement of the results, since it was already decided what was to be the outcome.
That is how I can understand the ‘rigged elections’ that put an end to the hopes of the ‘reformers’ and approved the continuation of the Ahmadinejad presidency. All of this, of course, may change with the deliberations of the Guardian Council, although the overturning of the elections’ outcome is not very likely.