June 14, 2009

Four More Years of Ahmadinejad

Originally published in Forbes.com

Elections in the Islamic Republic are neither fair nor free, but unlike Iraq under Saddam Hussein the Iranian leadership usually manages to manipulate the elections in a very sophisticated and elegant way in an attempt to portray itself as an Islamic democracy. The 2009 presidential election however was not an exercise in sophistication and elegance. Only four out of an original 476 presidential aspirants passed vetting by the Guardian Council; Ahmadinejad's challengers were handpicked among the most timid of the so-called reformers; Ahmadinejad enjoyed vocal but indirect support of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, had privileged access to the state-censored mass media; and enjoyed direct support of the Revolutionary Guards and the paramilitary Basij. 

The final election result--85% voter turnout and Ahmadinejad victory with 62.63% of the total vote and a modest 33.75% of the vote to the closest contender Mir-Hossein Mousavi not to mention ridiculously low number of votes of Rezai and Karrubi--shows that the Iranian leadership not even bothered to produce elegant fraud.

Unlike earlier elections there is still no detailed data on breakup of the vote in the provinces, but allegations of lack of voting forms in constituencies supporting Ahmadinejad's rivals, prohibitions against presence of representatives of the rivals at many voting stations, and election results from native villages and towns of Mousavi, Karrubi and Rezai most surprisingly showing more than 90% vote for Ahmadinejad, demonstrate rather clumsy rigging tactics.

The question is why all the clumsiness? Ahmadinejad could have easily advanced to the second round of election against Mousavi at which point the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij with some manipulation of the vote could have secured him a second-term victory without the easily detectable fraud. Ahmadinejad was after all in many ways a superior candidate. 

Ahmadinejad's ascetic lifestyle, combined with his populist call to return to the egalitarian ideals that animated the 1979 revolution and fierce nationalist rhetoric--including footage of captured British sailors taken prisoner by the Revolutionary Guards in his election video--appealed to the public. Distributing potatoes and even cash in rural areas also bought him popularity, while he used televised presidential debates--first of their kind in the history of the Islamic Republic--to blame the economic problems on allegedly corrupt high-ranking clerical members of the elites such as Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, former president and Ali-Akbar Nateq Nouri, the Supreme Leader's Chief Inspector.

Why the demonstrative fraud insulting intelligence of the electorate? Why beating up of elderly women and young students in Tehran demanding to know what has become of their vote? And why brutal repression of dissent in front of the entire foreign press corps? The Islamic Republic may consider this sickening theater a demonstration of power, and the drama may reveal the new rules of the game in a regime changing very fast.

Ahmadinejad is indeed a candidate of change: Once ruled by the clergy and guarded by the Revolutionary Guards, the Islamic Republic under Ahmadinejad is fast developing into a military regime, ruled and guarded by the Revolutionary Guards. Four more years with Ahmadinejad will provide more change you can believe in. Whether it is change to the better or worse is another question.

Ali Alfoneh is a visiting research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.