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Iran: A New Paradigm And New Math

Ahmadinejad's posters in Tehran The victory of Mahmud Ahmadinejad in Iran's 24 June presidential election represents the ascendance of the country's second postrevolution generation and the return of the common man to the country's politics. Although it is irrelevant now, because Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has congratulated the winner and effectively endorsed his mandate, Interior Ministry data raises questions about the election. Furthermore, there were complaints of fraud and interference.

The New Paradigm

It does not really matter how Ahmadinejad came to power, he will be the next president. Supreme Leader Khamenei congratulated Ahmadinejad in a message broadcast on state television on 25 June. Khamenei also said that by voting the Iranian people "showed, once again, your greatness to the people of the world, and your power to your bitter and malicious enemies."

The regime is less concerned with the outcome of the election than it is with the fact that it holds them on a fairly regular basis. Thus, it can claim public support and therefore legitimacy. As the case of President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami shows, furthermore, powerful unelected institutions can counter elected officials when their interests are threatened or when it appears that the system will be undermined.

The 48-year-old Ahmadinejad's victory represents the ascendance of the Islamic Revolution's second generation, and Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani's loss represents the twilight of the first generation. The Iran-Iraq War shaped the second generation, while opposition to the monarchy and trying to establish an Islamic state shaped the first one. Ahmadinejad's generation sacrificed a great deal in the war, and now it wants something in return. It worked up to this election victory slowly and subtly, emerging from nowhere to win the 2003 municipal-council elections and then building on that to win the 2004 parliamentary elections.

Ahmadinejad's victory also represents the return of the common man to Iranian politics. Parties in postrevolutionary Iran are elite institutions, and at election time they only present voters with a list of recommended candidates. The reformist parties and the 2nd of Khordad Front promoted important issues -- civil society, press freedom, and dialogue -- but they forgot about the basics -- employment, a living wage, and shelter. Ahmadinejad therefore stressed the themes that resonated -- such as job creation when there is double-digit unemployment, and the elimination of corruption. Although some people may worry about Ahmadinejad's conservative stance on cultural and social issues, that is probably irrelevant to the average citizen.

A former member of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, Ahmadinejad's victory is part of the rightward drift that started a few years ago. But the Revolutionary Guards were quick to remind Ahmadinejad that there are limits to how far he can go. In a 25 June statement it told him to stay true to his campaign promises, the Iranian Labor News Agency reported. This could be a reminder that he is indebted to the Guards Corps for his victory and should not threaten its economic interests, or it could be a reminder that the corps has a constitutionally defined political role.

How Did He Win?

Analysis of Interior Ministry data suggests that something is amiss in the Ahmadinejad victory. There were 46,786,418 eligible voters, and 27,959,253 of them voted on 24 June, for a total turnout of almost 60 percent. The previous week, 29,439,982 people voted, for a turnout of almost 63 percent.

In the second round of the election, Ahmadinejad received 17,248,782 votes, while in the first round he got 5,710,354 votes. How did he gather an additional 11.5 million votes in one week? Even if voter participation remained the same, and if Ahmadinejad received the 5,815,352 votes that went to the other hard-line candidates in the first round -- Ali Larijani and Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf -- that would only amount to 11,525,706. It defies logic that under circumstances where there were fewer people voting, support for Ahmadinejad almost tripled.

Hashemi-Rafsanjani received 10,046,701 votes on 24 June, while he got 6,159,453 votes the previous week. Obviously, not all Iranians who backed reformist candidates in the first round (Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi, Mohsen Mehralizadeh, and Mustafa Moin) backed Hashemi-Rafsanjani, or he would have received their 10,409,943 votes, for a total of 16,569,396. This would indicate that approximately 6 million voters stayed home, yet according to the official turnout figures, there were only 1.5 million fewer voters on 24 June.

In the second round of the election, 663,770 ballots were spoiled (approximately 2 percent), compared to 1,221,940 spoiled ballots the previous week (approximately 4 percent). Apparently, people were much more careful and wanted to be sure their votes counted.

This kind of quantitative analysis is useful, but in the Iranian case it has serious limitations. The greatest shortcoming is that the Iranian government does not give access to independent foreign observers. They cannot visit polling places to observe voter behavior, and there is no telling what happens to the ballot boxes when they are transferred from the polling station to the counting area. One is therefore dependent on whatever figures the regime chooses to provide, and in the absence of direct evidence to the contrary, it is purely speculative to say there was fraud.

Problems On Election Day

Some untoward incidents during election day could encourage questions about the final result. According to the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), security personnel arrested an Interior Ministry official who was trying to inspect a polling station, and in northern Tehran members of the semi-official Promoting Virtue and Prohibiting Vice unit (Amr be Maruf va Nahi az Monker) prevented people from voting. The interference got so bad that the Interior Ministry tried unsuccessfully to close some polling stations. Interior Ministry spokesman Jahanbakhsh Khanjani added, "Reporting of violations of the Election Law at such a broad level is quite unprecedented and according to the latest reports the violations are no longer limited to trivial illegal affairs."

After his release from police custody, Interior Ministry director of parliamentary affairs Ali Mirbaqeri said he witnessed Guardians Council interference at all the polling stations he visited, IRNA reported. "The monitors of the Guardians Council were not only filling out the tariffs and controlling the voters' IDs, but also constantly issuing orders for everyone," he said. Mirbaqeri said council officials confined him to a room for two hours and then turned him over to the police, who held him for another 2 1/2 hours.

Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the losing candidate, congratulated his rival on 25 June, the Iranian Students News Agency reported. But he too referred to foul play by his opponents and noted the pointlessness of complaining to the body charged with supervising elections, the Guardians Council. "I do not intend to take my complaint about the elections to those arbitrators who have proved that they do not want, or cannot, do anything," he said. "I only seek my right in the court of divine justice...." His rivals, Hashemi-Rafsanjani noted, "have interfered in the elections by utilizing the facilities of the [Islamic] system in an organized and illegitimate manner."

Foreign and local reporting on Iranian affairs focuses on Tehran, the capital, so little is known about voter behavior in the provinces. As of 25 June, furthermore, the Interior Ministry website had not updated its provincial data. From an analytical perspective, this data could be interesting if it is not manipulated by the regime first. For Iranians and the rest of the world, however, learning to live with a new Iranian paradigm will be more important.

See also:

A New Generation And The Drift To The Right

Ethnicity And Regional Interests Play Out In Vote

For RFE/RL's full coverage of Iran's elections, see "Iran Votes 2005"