11 June 2009

Iranian election heating up

The Iranian election has certainly heated up over the last few days. There have been enthusiastic mass rallies in support of the two leading candidates, and a row is brewing about the Iranian national broadcaster giving incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad extra air time.

There is also a major row about Ahmadinejad’s behaviour in the course of the televised debates between each pair of the four approved candidates. In a televised debate on 3 June, Ahmadinejad attacked leading reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, and Mousavi’s wife Zahra Rahnavard. He made accusations of corruption against a number of leading figures, especially former Presidents Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, whom he accused of “political sabotage” and “money laundering”.

Rafsanjani responded that Ahmadinejad was spreading “lies and unfounded accusations” against him and his children, and Ms Rahnavard told the Iranian media that she would file a complaint against Ahmadinejad unless he formally apologised to her family for violating their privacy, to her for spreading “false information”, and to the Iranian nation as well.

This and other episodes led Prosecutor-General Ayatollah Qorban-Ali Dorri-Najafabadi to intervene and warn the four candidates to refrain from defamatory tactics, saying that levelling accusations and allegations without corroborative evidence is against the law. “Allegations of misconduct should be first legally substantiated before being made public,” said Dorri-Najafabadi. “Election candidates should avoid resorting to false accusations, and invasion of privacy against one another.”

Subsequent to this:

- Mir-Hossein Mousavi on Monday told a rally in Tehran that he would reveal how missing oil revenues were spent during President Ahmadinejad’s term

- The other reformist candidate, Mehdi Karroubi, said he will publish documents which confirm that incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is involved in financial fraud

- Former President Rafsanjani has written an open letter to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i, and asked him to take “necessary action” about the accusations.

To date the Supreme Leader appears to be missing in action on the issue. He is normally assumed to be an Ahmadinejad supporter, but may well have been discomforted by Ahmadinejad’s behaviour. It wouldn’t be the first time. He seems to have pulled Ahmadinejad into line following his Holocaust-denying remarks, following which Ahmadinejad went relatively quiet on that issue and shifted his focus to making the point that the Holocaust had happened in Europe and the Palestinians should not be the ones who had to pay the price for it.

Khamene’i has tended on the whole to align himself with conservative positions. One of his problems is that at the time that Ayatollah Khomeini died, Khamene’i was not a very senior cleric. The people who decide such things, however, decided that he was the most suitable candidate to replace Khomeini, and he became the Islamic Republic’s second Supreme Leader - a political decision, not a religious one. He was elevated to the status of ayatollah, but the fact is that he became an ayatollah because he was the Supreme Leader, rather than becoming Supreme Leader as a result of his attainments in the field of Islamic scholarship. Aside from any question of his personal predispositions, this probably makes it difficult for him to support positions at the more liberal end of the spectrum.

The election takes place tomorrow, 12 June. As in a French Presidential election, it is first past the post, but if no candidate receives 50%+1 of the votes cast, there will be a run-off between the two leading candidates. My guess (and it is a guess) is that the presence of three candidates running against Ahmadinejad will split the vote enough to prevent any one of those candidates from getting over the line in the first round, but the total anti-Ahmadinejad vote will be enough to force a second round. That I would expect to be a runoff between Ahmadinejad and the leading reformist candidate, Mir-Hossain Mousavi.

One thing that ought to be clear from the events of the last ten days is that, while Iran is not a model democracy, it is not a dictatorship either. Political outcomes in Iran are the result of a contest between a complex system of interlocking institutions. The people certainly have a say, and sometimes they deliver the elites some unpalatable surprises, such as the election of Mohammad Khatami in 1997.

We will see what tomorrow brings.

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