15 June 2009

Iranian election: a tragedy in the making

It is hard to know how events will unfold in Iran following the “election” outcome but it is hard to see it ending anything but messily. Friday 12 June must certainly be seen as a watershed in the nation’s history.

If the election of Mr Ahmadinejad were a genuine expression of the will of the Iranian people concerning the four candidates that were presented to them, one could be philosophical about that. It is, after all, their election, not ours.

But it is becoming increasingly clear that the events of the last few days have been more in the nature of a coup than an election.

Elections in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution have had their limitations, the most obvious being the vetting of the candidates and the advantages that accrue to the incumbent in a nation of state-owned media and no independent institutions. Nevertheless, in previous elections the clerical leadership has accepted the people’s choice regarding the candidates presented to them, the outstanding example of this being the unpalatable (to the leadership) surprise of the election of reformist cleric Mohammad Khatami in 1997.

On previous occasions, while there have been voting irregularities, candidates have been able to monitor the election itself and scrutinise the counting of votes. District by district results were published, which gave an opportunity for informed analysts to assess the credibility of the process.

This time around, none of that happened, and the Minister for the Interior announced that he would oversee the final count in his office at the Ministry, with only two aides present. Within hours of the poll closing the Government announced an impossibly uniform pattern of voting across the country. Further evidence of irregularity:

- Leading reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, an ethnic Azeri, was defeated by Ahmadinejad in his home province, even though the Turkic-speaking Azeris traditionally vote strongly for even minor Azeri candidates.

- We are asked to believe that reformist cleric Mehdi Karroubi, an ethnic Lur who won 17 per cent of the vote in 2005, received only about 1 per cent of the vote this time, and even lost in his home province of Loristan.

- Ahmadinejad is claimed to have taken more than 50% of the vote in Tehran, even though he is not popular in the big cities because of high unemployment attributable to his mismanagement of the economy.

There are suggestions by some commentators that what we are seeing now is a seizure of power by Ahmadinejad, who under the Iranian Constitution is subservient to the Supreme Leader and the Council of Guardians, but who seems to be taking control with the support of the Revolutionary Guards.

The question is what happens now. The election campaign has ignited enormous expectations, and an enormous sense of having been robbed, amongst the 60% of Iran’s 70 million population that is under 30 and has no memory of the Iranian Revolution and the glory days of the occupation of the United States Embassy in Tehran. Many of the political elite, including some very powerful people like former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, detest Ahmadinejad and regard him as a disaster for Iran in both economic and foreign policy terms. In the case of Rafsanjani it is also deeply personal, Ahmadinejad having accused him publicly of corruption (see Iranian election heating up). It is hard to imagine that this country the size of Queensland is big enough for both of them.

The Rubicon that Mr Ahmadinejad has crossed is that, while his initial crackdown might be successful, and continue to be so for some time, he can no longer continue to claim to be governing with the consent of the governed, and will have to rely increasingly on ruthless repression. In Iran, with its history of more than a century of democratic experience, that counts for something. As one well-connected Iranian news editor remarked, "We can't run Iran like North Korea. A group of militarists cannot stuff this civilization into a can and put it away”.

For a good sample of informed comment see commentary by Gary Sick, Iran specialist and former National Security Council staffer under three United States Presidents, Ibrahim Yazdi, Foreign Minister in the early days of the Islamic Republic and now a leading dissident, Juan Cole, President of the Global Americana Institute, and New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, reporting from Tehran.

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