Friday, June 19, 2009

What's the deal with the Iranian elections?


That's a 'Twitter' 'hashtag' that's winging its way across the Internet right now, spread viraly by millions of 'Twitterers' decrying the alleged election fraud that took place in Iran.

But let me play Devil's Advocate for a moment. Are these accusations of fraud authentic?

Don't get me wrong. I loathe incumbent president Mahmūd Ahmadinezhād as much as anybody. I was fervently hoping for the predicted landslide for his opponent, reformist Mir-Hossein Mousavi Khameneh.

But when the election results came in - with Ahmadinezhad winning the election by an average of two votes to one - I was suspicious of just how fast people started crying 'fraud!'

It would be desirable and convenient for the disgusting Ahmadinezhad to be ousted from office, but we must never allow ourselves to buy into the belief that if you want something to be true, you can make it true (kind of like fundamentalists to try to with creationism.)

As much as I'd like to join in the clamor for electoral equality, let's examine the evidence first.

Iran's a big country and this election saw a voter turnout of nearly 85%. That meant almost 40 million votes were tallied (according to BBC Persian.) Of those votes, Ahmadinezhad won over 24.5 million of them.

Contrary to the cries of 'fraud,' this actually matches the results predicted by Terror Free Tomorrow: The Center for Public Opinion. Three weeks before the election, this non-profit group held an independent poll and found that twice as many people pledged to vote for the incumbent president as Mousavi.

Supporting this analysis, Guardian contributor Abbas Barzegar argued that the western response to the election results showed complete ignorance of the real situation in Iran. Western media, such as the BBC and the New York Times, tended to concentrate on opinion and analysis from more liberal Iranians, coming from wealthier parts of the country. This ignored, according to Barzegar, "the wide support Ahmadinejad enjoys in poor and rural communities."

There is some logic to that opinion. If residents of only New York City and San Francisco had been polled in the leadup to the 2004 Presidential Election, nobody would imagine George W. Bush could win a second term. However, that's exactly what he did - with the support of America's infrequently opinioned 'heartland'

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, in an article in The Politico, pointed out much the same thing. In the 2005 Presidential Election, when facing similarly moderate Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Ahmadinezhad won with almost 62% of the vote. That's practically the same result as in this disputed election - but, of course, there was no outcry of 'fraud' last time around.

It's certainly true that we, in the West, made certain assumptions about the election that didn't necessarily hold true. Mousavi, for example, was expected to poll well in his native Azeri provinces. However, Ahmadinezhad's speaks fluent Azeri and ran a blinding campaign in the two provinces (even quoting Azeri and Turkish poetry onstage.)

To quote the United States Intelligence Service, as they pragmatically analysed the results: "It is not outside the realm of possibility that Ahmadinejad won this election."

They, too, conclude that the Western media were relying on biased opinion from expatriate Iranians and urbane, pro-Western correspondents from capital city Tehran. The US officials wearily noted: "Tehran is Tehran, but it’s not Iran."

M K Bhadrakumar, writing in the Asia Times, dismissed even the post-election protests as 'inconsequential' - carried out by wealthy, young members of the 'Gucci crowd.' They are unrepresentative of the 'real Iran' and "the rural poor who, in their multitudes, form the bulk of voters and constitute Ahmadinejad's political base."

In short, it possible - perhaps even likely - that the election results were as fair as can be expected to be in a country like Iran.

Certainly, there are questions raised. At least 30 polling sites reported voter turnout of 'over 100%' and the New York Times reported a leak from the Interior Ministry hinting at a fraud campaign that had "been prepared for weeks."

But are any of these allegations truly convincing? Walter R. Mebane Jr., professor of political science and statistics at the University of Michigan (and an expert on detecting electoral fraud) concluded: "There are suspicious elements here, but there's no solid evidence of fraud."

Likewise, Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett suggested that the anomalies identified in the Iranian election results were less significant than those of the 2000 Presidential Election in America (specifically, the debacle in Florida.)

I certainly don't want to be identified as a supporter of Ahmadinezhad - but in objective, rational analysis of this election, the evidence strongly suggests that his victory is legitimate.

We don't have to like it, but we may have to accept it. The media circus surrounding the 'election fraud' is damaging our credibility. It sends a message to the people of Iran that America and the west are only willing to support sovereign democracy if the people of that nation vote 'the right way.'

In this instance, they didn't. But that was their choice to make - and in the absence of any cold, hard, credible evidence to prove otherwise, we might just have to shut up and accept that.


Coffee Bean said...

Hey Rols,

Interesting post. I linked to you today and am hoping the people that comment on my blog come over and throw their two cents in here!

Truthfully, I don't know what to think about what is going on over there. It is my understanding that the Guardians are in control of who is on the ballot in the first place. I'm also not sure it matters how Ahmadinejad and Mousavi compare as is being discussed by many. The fact that there are violent demonstrations going on in Iran is indicative that there is a real problem between the Iranian government and the Iranian people.

LOL! My word verificatin for this comment is "rants".

BLBeamer said...

Hi, Roland - I'm still not convinced by your arguments. Looking at the protests in Tehran, Isfahan and other cities I have to ask, "Are there really that many 'Gucci set' in Iran that they'd be willing to take to the streets in such numbers?"

Also, since you've already mentioned those districts that polled over 100% turnout, there are also reports that the Iranian election officials were able to count millions of ballots by hand in just a few hours. This is, to put it mildly, highly dubious.

I agree with you that Ahmadinejad may have won the election, but I think it is still too early to say whether or not 1) he really did, or 2) if he can hold his win.

Power to the Persian people!

Susanne said...

I don't think either guy is great since the cleric chose the field of candidates. My problem isn't with the election outcome, but with the way the top cleric has treated his own countrymen who are protesting. Since when is shooting at people and threatening "bloodshed" an honorable thing for a country's leader? Especially one who claims to be a big time man of God. Or maybe that's the problem. *shrug*