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Little Joy In Iran's 'Joyous Election'

Musavi supporters rally in Tehran, the first time a defeated candidate has refused to accept defeat in Iran.
Musavi supporters rally in Tehran, the first time a defeated candidate has refused to accept defeat in Iran.
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has declared that "our enemies are trying to deprive us of a joyous election and are arranging hostile provocations."

He made this statement after Iran's election commission declared incumbent President Mahmud Ahmadinejad the victor in the country's June 12 presidential election as supporters of reformist candidate Mir Hossein Musavi took to the streets in protest.

At first glance, Ahmadinejad's results seem impressive. The official tally gave him 63 percent of the vote, compared to 34 percent for Musavi. The pathetic vote totals of the other two candidates would seem to indicate a sort of bipolarization of Iran's electoral process.

In a nutshell, Iranians in this election faced a stark choice -- either confrontation with the West and growing authoritarianism at home or the reopening of a dialogue with the outside world and a gradual domestic liberalization. The announced results would seem to indicate convincingly that Iranians chose the first option.

But a closer look reveals a different picture. Never before in Iran's history has a defeated candidate publicly disputed the results of an election. On the contrary, they have always faithfully performed all the normal formalities such as congratulating the victor and the like.

Not A Normal Vote

This isn't surprising since in Iran all the candidates are participants in the country's current political system and have acknowledged the rules of the game (including the unofficial approval of their participation in the election by Khamenei) in exchange for guarantees that the election will be more or less honest.

And there is a precedent of a candidate who did not enjoy access to state resources winning the presidency -- in 1997 the reformist Mohammad Khatami beat parliament speaker Ali Akbar Nateqnuri, who had the support of most of the bureaucracy. There has also been another unspoken rule that has been observed since 1981 -- that is, presidents are elected for two terms and, in fact, a president's second election campaign has become something of a mere formality, essentially a mere plebiscite.

But now the situation has changed. A significant portion of the Iranian establishment and a modernization-minded layer of society have an interest in seeing the unmanageable Ahmadinejad removed. They believe that his unconsidered actions could lead to a conflict with the international community and the further isolation of Iran. So, instead of a plebiscite, Iran had a real, competitive campaign during which the reformists were able to put forward a strong challenger to Ahmadinejad who had a real chance of winning.

Under these circumstances, the president's supporters also broke with tradition and made massive use of the administrative resources at their disposal to ensure victory for their candidate. It was, to be sure, the dirtiest election campaign in the history of modern Iran.

The high turnout was an advantage for Musavi. Young people, women, ethnic minorities, and others hoping for a genuine change in the country's political course turned out in droves. Traditionally in Iran, low voter turnout benefits the conservatives (their disciplined, rural electorate can be counted on to vote), and high turnout works to the advantage of the reformers. In the current case, turnout was very high, at least 75 percent and probably closer to the 80 percent record established in Khatami's victory in 1997.

But the breakdown of the votes between the two main candidates remained almost identical to what we saw four years ago, when Ahmadinejad won a second-round victory with low turnout over the unpopular and corruption-tainted former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Such an electoral miracle is difficult to explain except by massive fraud.

Cornering Ahmadinejad

Musavi has refused to accept the official results of the election and has called on his supporters to refrain from violence. It is noteworthy that he declared victory even before the polls closed -- such a serious and cautious politician would not make such a statement unless it has some basis in fact. As the protests spread, the authorities responded by detaining leading opposition figures in order to prevent the protesters from finding a leader and minimize the wave of dissatisfaction.

It would appear that they are achieving this goal, but it is impossible to declare this "joyous election" a victory for Ahmadinejad. Four years ago he achieved victory in an honest contest and his legitimacy as president was not contested by even his most radical critics.

But now the situation looks completely different. Musavi supporters -- and they include many of the most active urban residents -- do not merely feel that they lost, but that they have been humiliated. They believe the president stole the election. This might significantly bolster the mood of protest in the country, which was already high because of the poor economic situation.

Moreover, Ahmadinejad will, as time goes on, gradually become a lame duck. Of course, his authoritarian tendencies might incline him to try to rewrite the constitution to enable him to seek a third term, but in doing so he would meet with opposition from both reformers and many conservatives who supported him in this election.

During the campaign, they observed a sort of moratorium on criticism of the president's economic policies, but now nothing prevents them from renewing such attacks with new ardor. Several conservative leaders are already seriously considering running for president in 2013, meaning that they are already competing against Ahmadinejad.

As for Iran's nuclear program, it can be expected to develop now along the lines laid out by Ahmadinejad -- that is, with a military component. This, of course, increases the likelihood of tensions between Iran and the international community, tensions that could easily develop into a serious conflict. And that is the most worrying result of Iran's "joyous election."

Aleksei Makarkin is vice president of the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. The views expressed in this commentary, which first appeared on the website "Yezhednevny zhurnal," are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL