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Iran Elections - 13 June 2009

In June 2009 the country held its 10th presidential election, which outside observers regarded as neither free nor fair. International observers were not allowed entry to monitor the election results. The Guardian Council approved only four candidates out of more than 450 prospective candidates, including 42 women and former officials. No women were approved to run as candidates.

President Khatami ended his presidential candidacy mid-March 2009 in favor of former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi. Khatami's publicly stated rationale for the decision to end his campaign should be taken at face value. Khatami emphasized that he truly believed Mousavi could more effectively govern in the current political climate, and he did not want the moderate vote to be diluted by competing candidates.

Authorities increased censorship and surveillance during the campaign, blocking cell phone signals and access to social networking and opposition Web sites. The government also reportedly harassed and arbitrarily arrested political activists, members of the country's religious and ethnic minority communities, students, trade unionists, and women's rights activists during the preelection period.

For example, in April 2009 authorities detained Mehdi Mo'tamedi Mehr, a member of the Committee to Defend Free, Healthy, and Fair Elections and the banned political organization the Freedom Movement of Iran, after the committee published a statement about civil society institutions as election observers. In December 2009 according to local press reports, the MOIS summoned Mehr and other members of the Freedom Movement, and at year's end they remained in detention. In May 2009 authorities detained Emad Bahavar, also a member of the Freedom Movement, for "spreading propaganda against the system" by campaigning for presidential candidate Mousavi. According to IHRV, he was released 96 hours later. He was detained again in June 2009 and was released after 46 days in solitary confinement. Nine months later on March 7, Bahavar defended himself at a trial for his June 2009 detention and was immediately arrested. On November 29, Bahavar was convicted of "assembly and collusion to act against national security," "propagating against the regime," and "insulting the leader." He was sentenced to a 10-year prison term and a 10-year ban on any political activity. At year's end he remained in Evin Prison.

In June 2009, when Iran's lackluster Presidential campaign became energized by a (first-time) series of televised debates among the four Presidential candidates: former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi (reformist), former Speaker Mehdi Karrubi (reformist), Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezai (moderate conservative) and President Ahmadinejad (hard-line conservative). President Ahmadinejad's accusations that former Presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami were 'plotting' against his government and, along with Mousavi and other reformists, sought to undermine the Revolution and to enrich themselves, galvanized ordinary Iranians. Incivility and accusations at odds with obligatory Persian politesse left many observers with the impression (discomforting for some, energizing for others) that the elections might actually be more of a true contest than past elections, and that Ahmadinejad might actually be vulnerable to an upset.

These Presidential debates sparked popular interest in the election, and in the last week or so before the June 12 vote reformist candidate Mousavi, with active and behind-the-scenes support from Khatami and Rafsanjani, increasingly gained momentum, with his supporters for the first time beginning to speak publicly of a 'Green Movement.' Part of his support were young, first-time voters; part were revitalized older 'Second of Khordad' reformists who had turned out in record number to support Khatami in 1997 and 2001, but who had subsequently sourced on politics due to Khatami's inability to effect change. Another large group of first-time voters were from the ranks of the "Khamoush" ('silent') - ie, Iranians who had never voted but who were inspired by prospects for positive change and had hope that this election would be genuine. Mousavi may have even drawn some support for older and more conservative voters who remembered his steady stewardship of Iran's economy during his stint as Prime Minister during the 1980's Iran-Iraq War.

Iran analysts, both Iranian and foreign, reacted with incredulity to the results of the Iranian presidential election and accused the IRIG of grossly rigging the election and falsifying the resuls. The numbers released by the Ministry of Interior - for all four of the candidates - contravene known voting patterns in Iran's recent history. Most significantly, accepting the Ministry of Interior's numbers requires believing that a massive new group of voters who did not support Ahmadinejad in 2005 voted in favor of him this time. Media supportive of Ahmadinejad began indicating he had won before polls closed and before counting was to have begun. Just after 6pm in Iran, an article appeared on the Fars news website in Farsi alleging that a candidate had won the election with about 60% of the vote, nearly matching the final outcome. There is strong evidence that the government had prepared extensively for the post-election riots despite that past elections have not provoked riots.

According to the Ministry of Interior (MOI), 46.2 million of Iran's 70 million people were eligible to vote in the election. Based on the numbers released publicly by the MOI on June 13, turnout exceeded 85 percent nationwide, based on 38.95 million ballots cast. This is the highest participation level recorded in a national election, topping the 80 percent turnout in the 1997 presidential election. This level of voter participation was anticipated by most Iran political analysts and supported anecdotally through widespread foreign and domestic media coverage of long lines at polling stations in major urban centers throughout the day.

Khatami won the 1997 and 2001 elections in landslides, taking 70 percent and 78 percent, respectively. He had broad support across all demographics, but the large margins of victory were primarily due to his ability to mobilize and sweep the urban vote. During the eight years of Khatami's administration, urban voters grew disillusioned with the political system that prevented Khatami from effectively implementing the reform movement's platform and emerged as a largely silent majority within Iran. Participation among this cadre dropped in the 2004 Majles election, the 2005 presidential election, and the 2008 Majles election.

It is within this context that the relatively-unknown Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005, primarily on the back of a strong rural turnout and a significant popular backlash to his principal opponent. The 2007 Tehran City Council election provides a snapshot of Ahmadinejad's urban support, midway between the two presidential elections. Ahmadinejad's allies in the election fared poorly in the 2007 Tehran City Council election, indicating that two years into his tenure his urban support, at least in Tehran, remained low.

In the first round of the 2005 election, Ahmadinejad gained 20 percent of the vote, roughly 5.6 million people. This cohort should be considered his base of support at that time. Ahmadinejad may have expanded his base in the intervening 4 years, and likely did, but the MOI numbers require that Ahmadinejad's base roughly quadrupled. The MOI numbers show that 85 percent of the country voted and that Ahmadinejad received 63 percent of the vote, an outcome that requires Ahmadinejad to have captured a significant share of the urban vote and the silent majority - the exact people who stayed home in the past few elections rather than vote for Ahmadinejad or his political allies.

Ahmadinejad did enjoy a loyal, committed base of support. He had been in campaign mode since 2005 but had focused his attention and the government's resources mainly on the rural voters who brought him to office. He had also recently been able to boost the salaries of many public sector workers and pensioners. In the months leading up to the election, however, there was a growing consensus among political scientists, sociologists, and economists that despite the handouts and salary increases, Ahmadinejad's support among the poor and the working class in both urban and rural areas was eroding rather than increasing. It is well-established that attendance at Ahmadinejad public events is enhanced by cash handouts, and supporters are often bussed to events to ensure high turnout.

The election results released by the MOI contravene voting patterns in Iran's recent history. In 2005, Ahmadinejad's support in the 30 provinces ranged from a low of 6 percent to a high of 55 percent, reflecting a range of voting preferences among Iran's diverse population. In this election, Ahmadinejad's support ranged from a low of 45 percent to a high of 77 percent, and he received under 50 percent in only two provinces. Also, Karroubi gained 18 percent of the vote in 2005 and swept his home province of Lorestan. According to the MOI, this year he captured less than 1 percent of the vote nationwide and just 4 percent in Lorestan. Of the three "Azerbaijani" provinces, Mousavi lost two to Ahmadinejad and barely won a third; historically, even minor presidential candidates with an Azerbaijani background win these provinces. It is worth noting that Mousavi lost his home province, East Azerbaijan, despite his candidacy's significant resonance amongst his fellow Azeri Iranians. Ahmadinejad won East Azerbaijan, despite having polled at only 15 percent there in 2005.

The process of counting and announcing results did not follow the government's own rules. In past elections, the government entities charged with administering and certifying results largely observed the protocol outlined in the Election Law. The Ministry of Interior usually announces provincial and municipal results real time, as they are counted, following the close of the polls. Such results were only announced three days later in this election. Khamenei, rather than waiting for the Guardians Council to certify the election before endorsing the result, approved of the results prior to the MOI's announcement of the final results. Media supportive of Ahmadinejad began indicating he had won before polls closed and before counting was to have begun. Just after 6pm in Iran, an article appeared on the Fars news website in Farsi alleging that a candidate had won the election with about 60 percent of the vote.

Anecdotal evidence suggested that authorities forced some election observers representing opposition candidates to leave polling stations and that millions of unused paper ballots went missing. Before all polls closed and ballot counting had commenced, government-controlled media announced that President Ahmadi-Nejad had been reelected in the first round of elections, obtaining a majority of the votes. Contrary to the election law, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei approved the election results before the Guardian Council certified the election and before the Interior Ministry announced the final results. Independent analysts studied election data and concluded there were a number of irregularities, including at least two provinces showing a turnout of more than 100 percent and the absence of longstanding regional variations in turnout, which appeared abnormal despite regulations that allow Iranians to vote at any polling station. According to official government data, President Ahmadi-Nejad took not only all former conservative voters, all former centrist voters, and all new voters, but also up to 44 percent of former reformist voters, a scenario analysts questioned.

There is strong evidence that the government had prepared extensively for the post-election riots, with the pre-positioning of anti-riot units, the cuts in SMS service before the election, and the denial of communication services to reformist groups. However, past elections had not provoked riots. The riots in protest of the announcement of election results are occurring in all major cities, and across a variety of neighborhoods within the cities. Protests have not been limited to specific demographic groups.

Following the June 13, 2009 announcement of President Ahmadi-Nejad's reelection, hundreds of thousands of citizens took to the streets to protest. Police and the IRGC-controlled paramilitary Basij violently suppressed demonstrations. The official death count was 37, but opposition groups reported approximately 70 individuals died, and human rights organizations suggested as many as 200. In August 2009 the judiciary estimated that authorities detained approximately 4,000 persons. During 2011, authorities continued to suppress periodic opposition protests and continued to arrest numerous political activists, women’s rights reformers, minority rights activists, and student activists.

After the 1997-2005 Khatami Presidency, Supreme Leader Khamenei (SLK) was determined to prevent any reformist, especially his former political opponent Mousavi, from heading the Executive Branch. Khamenei considered Rafsanjani his most serious rival, and was also intimidated by Khatami's popularity. Therefore, that both Rafsanjani and Khatami supported Mousavi may have led Khamenei to conclude that a Mousavi victory would consolidate power in the hands of those bitter rivals and leave him unacceptably vulnerable to marginalization. And part of the answer relates to the increasingly powerful IRGC hardline faction that had supported Ahmadinejad (AN) in 2005, whose support Ahmadinejad strengthened over the subsequent four years by using government funds and patronage to increase this faction's power and wealth. As such, this hardline IRGC faction, composed mostly of high-level officers with a shared intelligence-security background, wanted 'four more years,' despite mixed support for Ahmadinejad from within the IRGC ranks. Anecdotal information indicates that this hardline faction had convinced SLK that the election could be fixed with minimal backlash.

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Page last modified: 15-12-2015 20:13:20 ZULU