Did Ahmadinejad Steal The Election?


Did Ahmadinejad steal the election? That is the question being asked by so many in Iran and around the world.

The aftermath of last Friday’s Iranian presidential elections was expected to be colourful, but few could have anticipated such a dramatic conclusion. Incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was pronounced the official winner collecting a resounding 63 per cent of the votes — according to authorities.

But the result has been widely criticised as suspicious, especially by supporters of reformist presidential candidate and main Ahmadinejad rival, Mir Hossein Mousavi. There have been international concerns too. Although the European Union’s official statement affirmed Ahmadinejad’s victory, German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke of "voting irregularities" while France summoned the Iranian ambassador to discuss the elections and request improved security for its mission in Tehran where Ahmadinejad supporters had gathered to protest Western interference in Iran. The ambassador was unavailable. Similar protests were held outside the British Embassy in the Iranian capital.

Western commentators have also been quick to question the validity of the result, as has United States Vice President Joe Biden. Earlier this week on NBC’s Meet the Press, Biden said there was "real doubt" about Ahmadinejad’s election victory. Officially, however, the US was taking a less strident tone than the Europeans. A State Department spokesperson said the US was still assessing the situation in Iran and was ready to open dialogue regardless of the election’s outcome. For once Washington was playing the good cop to Europe’s bad cop. This may well represent a shift under the Obama White House toward more dialogue with Iran and a policy of non-interference in its domestic affairs.

Within Iran, however, there have been enough responses to the election to keep Ahmadinejad and Government authorities (largely controlled by Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) on their toes.

Despite an Interior Ministry decision outlawing public protests, Mousavi supporters took to the streets of Tehran and other major cities this week calling for a recount and Ahmadinejad’s resignation. They risked imprisonment and heavy-handed riot police — footage from hidden cameras showed baton-wielding police in full riot gear wading into protesters. At least one man was shot dead by security forces. An unknown number of protesters have been arrested.

Iranian authorities have gone to great lengths to prevent images and reports of protests being broadcast on local and international television and on the internet. Iranians have as a consequence increasingly turned to the blogosphere and new media like Twitter to keep themselves informed — although some sites, like Facebook and the Tehran Bureau website’s Twitter page, have been blocked by the Government.

On Monday, after avoiding the rallies over the weekend, Mousavi finally joined his supporters at a protest in Tehran demanding a new poll and claiming Friday’s vote had been rigged. Earlier, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini had called on Mousavi and his supporters to restrict their protests to "legal channels".

Mousavi has lodged a formal request for an investigation of alleged election rigging with Iran’s Guardian Council, the powerful state institution that interprets the constitution and oversees national elections. Mousavi’s public appearances and statements are likely to magnify the political uncertainty in the country and, presumably, heighten speculation that the election was indeed rigged.

So too will protests from the other two candidates for president. Conservative presidential candidate Mohsin Rezai also lodged an election investigation request with the Guardian Council. He has previously criticised Ahmadinejad’s inflammatory rhetoric for isolating Iran economically and diplomatically. His supporters, and those of the other reformist candidate standing for election, Mehdi Kurrubi, have also taken to the streets, although in far smaller numbers.

Muhammad Sahimi of the independent Tehran Bureau website argues that the election results posted by the Iranian Interior Ministry appear suspiciously artificial. On scrutiny of the official statistics, Sahimi says the votes are too neatly distributed among the candidates in all electorates. Given Iran’s diverse society, and the record 70—80 per cent voter turnout, such smooth statistics might point to electoral manipulation.

Support for Ahmadinejad has remained strong — and not just from the establishment. His supporters have come out onto the streets in equal if not larger numbers than those of Mousavi and the other presidential candidates. According to a poll conducted by a Washington-based think tank prior to the vote, Ahmadinejad was expected to win by a margin of two to one — about the same margin as the official election results posted by authorities over the weekend. The current President has remained popular with the poor, particularly in regional Iran, for offering food.

It is also possible that the prospects of change under a reformist president have also been overblown. After all, even the reformist former president Mohammad Khatami, who Ahmadinejad defeated in 2005, was unable to break the yoke of the clerics who effectively steer the political direction of this ancient society.

Yesterday’s offer by the
Guardian Council of a limited recount falls well short of opposition party demands for a
fresh election. The complex and insecure voting processes
that characterised the election itself mean that a recount — and
especially a limited one — is unlikely to prove or disprove allegations
of vote-rigging. Whatever the outcome, neither side is likely to be

Despite the lingering uncertainty about the elections and the unrest it has spawned, there can be no doubt that Ahmadinejad — the once little known, still modestly dressed former mayor of Tehran — is the great winner out of all of this.

Addressing his supporters in Tehran on Sunday, Ahmadinejad described rioters as supporters of the "losing team" at a football match. He called his election victory a triumph for ordinary Iranians over foreign interference. He had earlier, during campaigning, likened his reformist presidential rivals to Hitler for their perceived smear tactics and threatened to throw them into jail.

On Tuesday Ahmadinejad joined regional leaders at a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Council in Moscow, his first foreign representation as President of Iran since re-election.

But the mass protests in the streets continue to contradict the business-as-usual image Ahmadinejad wants to project, and point to stark divisions within Iranian society. Given that these are divisions which Ahmadinejad himself has played a significant part in widening, he faces a difficult job if he wants to keep a lid on them over the next few years.

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