Saturday, June 20, 2009

Disputed election verdict in Iran

Power struggle between the ruling elite could be the reason for manipulation of election results to get conservative president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad re-elected.

The statement by Islamic Republic of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei that the results to the Iranian presidential elections affirming incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were a "divine assessment" summed up the situation ironically pretty well. Conservative president Ahmadinejad, according to official results, won the elections by capturing 66% of the votes in the first round of the presidential polls defeating three of his challengers, including his chief opponent and "reformist" Mir-Hussein Mousavi who garnered 33%, enough to rule out further rounds of polling.

Various aspects of the incidents following the elections stand out- within three hours after the polling was complete, more than 80% of the almost 40 million ballots were "counted"; Mousavi trailed not only in Tehran and other cities, but also was way behind Ahmadinejad in his stronghold Azeri areas such as Tabriz; just following polling, a massive shutdown on communication devices and systems occurred and the military was on the streets, before Ahmadinejad was declared winner. Unwilling to accept the results, Ahmadinejad's opponents called foul and following unprecedented protests on the streets of Iran's biggest cities, a partial recount was finally ordered by the powerful Guardian Council.

Ahmadinejad was a strong favourite in the run-up to the polls, having established solid support primarily in the rural areas of Iran, through a mixture of strong nationalistic appeal and populism. But just as the elections were nearing, Mousavi mounted a spirited campaign basing his appeal on his previous record as the former prime minister during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s and pointing fingers at Ahmadinejad's mishandling of the economy, and confrontationist foreign policy. He offered a more moderate regime which promised greater freedoms for women (hitherto denied in the Islamic regime), more civil liberties, looser controls over the state economy, a more conciliatory foreign policy while maintaining Iran's nuclear programme as contrasts to Ahmadinejad's hardline conservative rule. The set of policies and experience that Mousavi offered gradually found vast appeal particularly in the urban areas of Iran, among women, the university graduates, the "bazaar merchants" worried by inflation besides support from others who were aligned with the "reformers" such as former president Mohammad Khatami. Many opinion polls pointed to a closer outcome of results than that was officially declared, because of the strong appeal that Mousavi generated just before the elections.

If the disputed election results are indeed a consequence of manipulation, the question arises as to why even a moderate conservative such as Mir-Hussein Mousavi, part of the ruling elite is seen to be less preferred than the hardline Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by the powers that be in Iran. Any explanation would be from the manner the political system in Iran combines Islamic theocracy with modern aspects of democracy, wherein the Islamic institutions such as the supreme leader, the guardian council, the assembly of experts wield great influence. Included in this structure is the military Revolutionary Guard (the Pasdaran) and its associated Basij voluntary militia, who are tasked with security and ideological protection of the Islamic republic. There is a power struggle ensuing between conservatives and "reformists" within the guardian council and the assembly of experts and this has weighed upon the presidential elections as well. Ahmadinejad derives great support from the Pasdaran, the Basij and among the conservative sections of which Ayatollah Khamenei has been historically seen to be part of.

Ahmadinejad's support base can be attributed to his presidency's various radical economic measures such as instituting "justice shares" for the poor in Iran's private sector. A section of the ruling elite, seen to be aligned with former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani are at odds with the radical economic agenda of Ahmadinejad and there is an alignment on economic principles with the reformists. This cohesion between pragmatists such as Rafsanjani and reformists such as Khatami was alluded to by Ahmadinejad himself in his attack against Mousavi during the election campaign. Supported by the Pasdaran and the Basij, the conservative Ahmadinejad was obliquely preferred to over his opponents, by Ayatollah Khamenei in the run up to the elections. The power struggle between the conservatives, the reformists and those with business interests such as Rafsanjani could thus possibly explain the alleged fraud that prevented a moderate conservative such as Mousavi from coming to power.

The concession by the guardian council of a partial recount is a reaction to the massive protests staged in the cities of Iran, orchestrated by supporters of Mousavi, and termed by the western media in particular as the "green revolution". There still persists a strong nationalist sentiment against the threatening postures against the country by United States and Israel and it is this sentiment that Ahmadinejad would hope to tap, to prevent the protests against the election results from spreading. The western coverage of the protests term them as a parallel to the "colour-coded revolutions" in the former east European countries of the socialist bloc. This is far from an accurate assessment having no relation to the reality of Iranian society and polity as the protestors are asking for an annulment of the election results and support reform well within the framework of the Iranian political framework and do not want any alignment of Iran with the West as of the pre-revolutionary past.

Although the ruling elite of Iran could acquiesce to a re-election if the protests gather much more momentum spreading to other areas of Iran or indeed quell these protests by violent repression, there is very little possibility of a radical transformation of Iran's polity into suddenly conceding greater civil liberties and genuine gender equality. Till the theocratic structure of Iran's polity and society remains intact and the democratic contestations are well limited to entities within the framework of the velayat-e-faqih (guardianship of the Islamic jurists), no major change is possible.

Draft of an editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly.

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