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* This piece also appeared on the Jadaliyya online magazine.

[Read Part One here.]

“Epic” Turnout

After the 2 March polls closed, Khamenei said that the turnout had been “one of the highest” throughout the history of the Islamic Revolution. “These elections were a firm and clear answer” to the naysayers, he argued.

Yet even without a thorough inspection of the results, it is quite difficult not to question claims about “one of the highest” turnouts in the past thirty-three years. Official figures suggested a sixty-four percent turnout, higher than the fifty-one percent in the 2008 parliamentary elections. This means that despite the unparalleled damage to the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy following the unrest of 2009 and the ongoing crisis of mismanagement, the public’s trust in the political system has not suffered any decline. Quite the contrary, it has actually been able to shore up its legitimacy.

The staggering inflation, high prices, a surge in unemployment, the poor state of the national currency, regular reports of monumental embezzlement scandals and the authorities’ inability to prosecute the culprits, the growing constraints on political activity, the widespread crackdown on any form of dissent, and the continued stifling of civil liberties seem to have had little negative impact on the ordinary Iranian’s view of the political establishment. It’s worth mentioning that the deteriorating state of the economy coincides with a seven-year period during which the country’s oil revenues were equal to half of its total oil income since the initial discovery of oil 103 years ago. Iran is now officially the “world’s worst jailer” of journalists, ahead of China. It is a recognized “enemy of the Internet.” None of this appears to have deterred Iranians from casting ballots and thus “voting for the Islamic Republic” and showing their “trust” in the system.

Eyewitness accounts, as well as video footage from major cities, suggest that streets as well as polling booths were unusually silent, empty, and at times even deserted. This does not contradict reports about higher levels of participation in some of the more rural areas, where local issues tend to be the population’s main concern.

In the weeks and days ahead of elections, the Islamic Republic tends to open up to the world. In June 2009, the authorities were eager to show off its “democratic” spectacle and allowed many foreign journalists to travel to various parts of the country to cover the event and demonstrate to the world how free a country Iran is. The Daily Show’s Jason Jones even made a satirical report on the elections, interviewing leaders of the opposition. This would soon change, after the outbreak of protests, and the Culture Ministry would demand all foreign media and anyone affiliated with them to leave the country.

In March 2012, however, this is far from the case. This time around, far fewer journalists were granted visas. While Tehran governor Mohsen Nayebi spoke of three hundred and fifty foreign reporters covering the polls, an official at the Ministry of Culture admitted that no more than eighty visas had been granted to foreign-based journalists.

CNN’s Ivan Watson, one of the few foreign journalists allowed in Tehran to cover the elections, tweeted his telling description: “This is the 1st election I’ve covered anywhere in the world where authorities ordered reporters on buses to cover vote.” “All foreign journalists being BUSSED by authorities to polling stations. No alternative,” Watson added in another tweet.

If the authorities truly expected an “epic” turnout, they were intent on concealing it.

On his blog, Farhad Jafari, an Iranian author who endorsed Ahmadinejad in the 2009 presidential elections, recounted what he saw on 2 March in Mashhad, the holiest Iranian city in Shiite Islam. He noted that the number of polling stations had suffered a noticeable drop in comparison to previous elections. “I think this stemmed from a policy of reducing the number of polling stations in order to both increase the people’s movement in the streets and to make the remaining polling stations appear more crowded.”

Jafari’s description concurs with official figures. According to the Interior Ministry, around 48,000 polling stations were used during the 2009 election. In the 2012 elections, this number would drop to 46,924.

Jafari writes that he saw a “very noticeable fall” in the number of people present at the polling station (a mosque) near his home. “That year [2009], every time you went to the station, you would see long queues until outside the mosque. You would have to wait twenty to thirty minutes before casting your vote. [On 2 March] there was none of that.” Jafari describes another station where between ten to fifteen people were waiting to vote. Based on what he saw, he deduces, “the critics of the status quo are the majority.”

Judging by their absence at the ballots on Election Day, it would appear that eight of the country’s most prominent religious figures also see themselves as being part of the discontented “majority.”

As if the relationship between Hashemi Rafsanjani, a pillar of the revolution, and Khamenei wasn’t rocky enough, the head of the Expediency Council had this to say as he cast his vote: “If the [announced] results are the same as what the people have voted for, we will, God willing, have a good parliament.”

Yet questioning the authenticity of the election results would not end with these scathing remarks. Three years after the widely disputed 2009 elections, one is baffled by how gross statistical anomalies are still a regular feature of Iranian elections, including the last one.

A day after Election Day (3 March), Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar announced that 64.4 percent of eligible voters had turned out to vote for their representatives in parliament. According to Najjar, the total number of voters tallied at around 26.4 million.

Yet prior to the vote, Najjar had said that around forty-eight million Iranians were eligible to vote. By simply dividing Minister’s own figures, it is revealed that the turnout was no more than 54.8 percent, ten percentage points less than the 64.4 percent he had been so keen to announce. Former reformist parliamentarian Ali Mazrooei was quick to point this out.

The Ministry of Intelligence (MOI) would soon take notice of the mathematical blunder and made changes after the fact to Najjar’s announcement of the final results that had appeared on its official website. The MOI website now quoted Najjar as saying that 26.4 million was in fact not the final turnout figure, and that the Ministry would post the final tallies soon!

Another problem was Najjar’s insistence that turnout had increased by “eleven percent” compared to the last parliamentary elections in 2008. This was problematic, because the turnout in 2008 was fifty-one percent, and an “eleven percent” increase could only have been achieved if the 2012 turnout had been sixty-two percent, not the sixty-seven percent announced by the Minister.

In fact, Najjar needn’t have made any announcements. Forty-eight hours before the polls opened, the IRGC-affiliated Fars news agency claimed that its own nationwide survey, carried out between 23 and 25 February, predicted a turnout of around 65.5 percent. The agency provided no information about its methodology or the size of its survey. In a country like Iran, where independent and accurate surveys are nearly impossible, the Fars figures seem too good to be true.

The Fars news forecast seems even more impeccable when one considers the fact that weeks after Election Day, the MOI has yet to release the details of the tallies, giving rise to speculation that election officials are still preoccupied with the daunting task of applying the finishing touches (or “adjustments”) to the final excel sheet. It is noteworthy that even after the widely contested 2009 elections, the MOI did in the end release the complete detailed results, which, ultimately, had the unintended effect of strengthening the case for fraud.

Najjar later added that participation had reached twenty-nine million. But not even this number yields a turnout of more than sixty per cent, that is, four percentage points less the Najjar’s announcement!

Another inconsistency is Najjar’s claim regarding the number of eligible voters: forty-eight million. Again, Mazrooei points out that based on Iran’s 2006 census, the number of eligible voters in the country should have been closer to fifty-one million and not forty-eight as announced by the MOI. (He extrapolates a birth rate of 1.3 percent based on the decreasing birth rates obtained by the census.) Furthermore, a report by the newspaper Etemade Melli on 21 April 2009 argued that during that period, the number of voting-age Iranians was as high as 51.3 million people, five million more than what the MOI announced for the June elections.

A brief look at the announced results for Tehran Province, Iran’s most populous province, sheds further light on the authenticity of the recent parliamentary elections. According to MOI figures, fifty-two percent of the population in the province went to the polls on Election Day (forty-eight percent in Tehran city). This is problematic for two main reasons: In the last parliamentary elections in 2008, turnout was 30.32 percent. It strains credulity that the citizens of Tehran, who formed a significant core of the anti-government protests in 2009, would be so willing to go to the polls less than three years after the unrest.

Even former American national security officials Hilary Mann Leverett and Flynt Leverett, who have wasted no opportunity to ardently oppose the idea of fraud in the 2009 elections and to dismiss the Green Movement as an formidable force in Iranian political, ought to admit that in big population centers, in particular the capital Tehran, turnout could not possibly have been as high as official figures suggest.

Like the 2009 elections, another source of incongruity was the issue of provinces where turnouts of more than one hundred percent were recorded. For instance, two days before Election Day, the semi-official Mehr news agency ran a short story in which it claimed that Ilam Province had 373,000 eligible voters. To the amazement of its readers, the agency released another story after Election Day, in which it reported that 380,000 ballots had been cast in the province. Based on that number, Mehr also concluded that the turnout in the province had been seventy-six percent! Again, the election organizers seem to have failed at basic math. This unmistakable discrepancy means that at least one of these three numbers is problematic, to say the least. Having taken notice of the blunder, Mehr soon modified the 380,000 figure down to 280,000, explaining that “380,000” was a typo. This left only one problem: now the turnout was 75.067 percent, still one percent less than the previously announced seventy-six per cent!

Adjusting the numbers was proving to be a messy affair indeed.

According to provincial officials in the lead-up to Election Day, the number of eligible voters in Tehran and the newly formed Alborz Provinces was around 6.3 million. Yet based on the MOI’s own figures in 2009, the combined number of eligible voters in the two Provinces was around 8.8 milion. Astonishingly, not only has the number of voters old enough to vote not increase, but it has declined by 2.5 million voters.

If the election authorities did indeed deflate the number of eligible voters, it could only have served the purpose of inflating the overall turnout, and thereby delivering yet another “slap” in the face of the Islamic Republic’s adversaries.

Yet this meddlesome tactic was by no means a novelty. It was the case during both the 2008 and 2009 elections. For example, in 2008, less than two years after the Statistical Centre of Iran put the number of over-eighteen voters at around forty-eight million, the number of potential voters was announced by the authorities to be forty-three million!

Khamenei had promised an “epic” participation rate, and this had to be materialized. “Just as the Supreme Leader had predicted, the people’s participation in the elections was very high and better than previous elections,” said Ahmad Jannati, Chairman of the Guardian Council, after Election Day. As early as January, Khamenei’s representative in the IRGC predicted a turnout of between sixty to sixty-five percent. “People will partake in these elections and will not listen to those who bring up the issue of boycott,” Ali Saeidi told the official news agency Irna.

In a way, the elections really did represent an “epic” event—but “epic” in how problematic the announced results were. Allegations of voter fraud sparked limited protests in small cities such as Khorramabad and Amol, where the rivals were almost all exclusively from the Principlist camp and had been screened by the Guardian Council.

The election results prompted Khabaronline, a news site associated with current parliament speaker Ali Larijani, to state that poll results showed a “sudden change in voter behavior in the last two to three days” before Election Day. Even Ahmadinejad’s sister Parvin Ahmadinejad, who was defeated by a conservative rival in their hometown of Garmsar, accused the authorities of election rigging. Her defeat was emblematic of how an epoch of Iranian politics dominated by the Ahmadinejad clan was coming to an end.

Beginning of the End

If the authorities were confident about an “epic” turnout, this was not reflected in the state media’s extensive (and at times obsessive) coverage of former President Mohammad Khatami’s unexpected ballot on Election Day. Since the birth of the Green Movement, Khatami has often come under regular attack from the hardliners for his views (albeit these views have been quite moderate). He had been referred to as one of the leaders of the green “sedition” due to his close relationship with the opposition movement’s leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi.

But in the rush to show the political establishment’s legitimacy, none of this seemed to matter anymore. It did not matter that he had cast his vote at a primary school in the village of Vadan, near the resort town of Damavand, even though it is custom for former and current officials to vote in the capital on Election Day and before journalists. It did not matter that Khatami published a note on his site explaining to Iranians why he had voted, even though he had hinted earlier that he would boycott. It is still unclear whether he had even planned to vote or whether this was a last-minute decision. An activist close to Khatami said that the former president was not concerned that the vote might “put his reputation on the line” in the eyes of Iranians, and he had “made this very hard decision” to prevent the hardliners from placing further pressure on the reformists. Even the governor of Damavand had to come out and prove that Khatami had indeed participated in the elections.

We may never know whether the results corresponded to the content in the ballot boxes. The Guardian Council’s vetting of candidates means that Khamenei effectively controlled who would be permitted to run. Out of 3,400 candidates, 1,200 were disqualified, half of them Ahmadinejad loyalists and some even MPs who had entered the Majlis following the 2008 elections.

The unusually clumsy manipulation of vote figures means that the only “epic” aspect of the vote was the scale of irregularities. However, authentic or not, the unsurprising result (a crushing defeat for the “Deviant Current”) implies that Khamenei acolytes have swept up an overwhelming majority of seats in the Majlis, which means that the Supreme Leader has succeeded in bolstering his position. In the event that Iran does away with the presidential system, Khamenei will be able to exercise full control over the appointment of his head of state.

Before the new (and far less pro-Ahmadinejad) parliament’s first session is held, the president has been questioned by MPs over his mismanagement of the economy and lack of obedience to the Supreme Leader (though Ahmadinejad made a complete mockery of the questioning, infuriating the MPs.)

This, and the judiciary’s recent action over the largest embezzlement scandal in Iran’s history—in which Ahmadinejad aides are also implicated—serve as a reminder of what might become of Ahmadinejad if he is to persist in his protest against the Guardian Council’s vetting process. Surely the political life of a once thundering Ahmadinejad now seems to be drawing to an end. Ahmadinejad’s close aides and media outlets affiliated with him have thus far shown no willingness to challenge the Guardian Council over its disqualification of around six hundred pro-Ahmadinejad candidates.

This is not to say that it is likely that Ahmadinejad will be impeached. After all, Khamenei tied his destiny to that of Ahmadinejad when he showed his unstinting support for his favorite president on 19 June 2009. Fully aware of this, staunch Ahmadinejad rivals, such as conservative lawmaker Ahmad Tavakkoli, have hinted that Ahmadinejad will have to be tolerated for the next fifteen months. Tavakkoli adds, however, that should Ahmadinejad continue to rebel, his “displacement” will be the only option.

Almost exactly two years ago, Karroubi described the direction in which the Islamic Republic was moving: “The ship of state is today no more than a boat.” The events of 2 March demonstrated how this boat had become just a bit more unstable without actually capsizing.

The election results imply that Gholam Ali Haddad Adel finished first in Tehran district, the most important district of all. Haddad Adel has proven time after time his loyalty to the Leader. His supposedly high vote total and his family ties with Khamenei make him an appropriate candidate for speaker of the parliament. Also, his daughter is married to the leader’s son Mojtaba.

Of course, none of this would have been possible without the grace of the Revolutionary Guards, who immediately distanced themselves from Ahmadinejad when he dared defy the Supreme Leader.

The irregularities in the 2012 Majlis elections have also reopened the case of electoral fraud the June 2009 election. The sheer scale of the anomalies has further reinforced the hand of those who argued the 2009 race had been “engineered.”

In 2009, when Ahmadinejad won re-election, he enjoyed the firm backing of most conservatives as well as the IRGC, which were determined to prevent the rise of the reformists. Things were quite different on 2 March, when the same election process marked the end of an era referred to by some as “Ahmadinejadism.” His own sister accused the electoral authorities of having carried out fraud. Yet less than three years ago, her brother was seen by most as one of the main culprits behind the “election coup,” as his Ministry of Interior was the body in charge of holding elections.

It is difficult to predict how the relationship between Khamenei and the IRGC will evolve in the more than one year we have until the next presidential elections. The elite fighting force now owns a huge chunk of the Iranian economy, and thus far, its ambitions have not clashed with the Leader’s worldview. It remains to be seen whether this will continue.

Just days after the elections, an article titled “For Whom Are the Bells Tolling?” appeared in the conservative newspaper Resalat. It asserted that the election results were the “last nail in the coffin” of the faction absent from the whole election process: the reformists. Many reformists, however, see the elections as the last nail in the coffin of the “Republic” in “The Islamic Republic.” While the 2009 presidential election was far from fair or free, for a sizeable portion of the Iranian population it provided a rare opportunity for political expression. “[Today] we saw people at the polling stations who had never voted,” Mousavi said on the polling day in 2009.

The 2009 elections highlighted a major crack within Iran’s political elite. The 2 March elections only deepened those divisions. Less than three years later, the Islamic Republic’s overall march towards a form of military government has gained further pace and its leader has shown little sign of relenting in the face of dissent. At this pace, Khamenei will be seen as the person responsible for every state action and its consequences.

In an article published before the elections, Ali Reza Eshraghi and Yasaman Baji pointed out that a real yardstick for Khamenei’s self-confidence would be whether or not he decides to keep Hashemi Rafsanjani as the head of the Expediency Council. “If he does not approve Rafsanjani’s presidency…it will mean he feels powerful enough not to keep Rafsanjani as a scarecrow, or that he has realized this scarecrow does not scare anyone anymore.”

But in the end, Khamenei decided not to eliminate his old friend and reappointed him as the head of the Council. Whether or not the past three years have taught him anything remains to be seen.

[Read Part One here.]