Tuesday, June 16, 2009

No hard evidence, but possible signs of fraud in recent Iran election

I went so far as to pray that Mir Hossein Mousavi, a moderate and a former prime minister, would beat Mahmoud Ahmedinejad in Iran's recent election. Ahmedinejad officially won with over 60% of the vote to Mousavi's 34%.

The Washington Post reports that there are some signs of fraud but none are clear:

There are many signs of manipulation or outright fraud in Iran's disputed election results, according to pollsters and election experts, but the case for a rigged outcome is far from ironclad, making it difficult for the United States and other Western powers to denounce the results as unacceptable. Indeed, there is also evidence that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the incumbent president deeply disliked in the West for his promotion of Iran's nuclear program and his anti-Israeli rhetoric, simply won a commanding victory.

Some analysts have suggested that the attention given the protests and anger in Tehran -- where Western media outlets are concentrated -- gives a misleading picture of the Iranian electorate. The official results show that the leading challenger, former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, was competitive in Tehran, losing by 52 percent to 46 percent, while trailing badly outside the capital. "You could get more of an impression of a horse race in Tehran," said Flynt Leverett of the New America Foundation, who said Ahmadinejad is a "really good campaigner" who blunted Mousavi's momentum in their final debate.


Mehdi Khalaji, an expert on the Iranian political system at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that votes at each polling station are supposed to be counted and recorded on a form with the approval of representatives of the candidates, the Interior Ministry and the Guardian Council, a 12-member body selected by Khamenei, the head of the judiciary and Iran's parliament, which validates the election. But the numbers on these forms remain secret. They are sent to the Interior Ministry, which tallies the various forms from polling stations and reports on the totals for each province.

Khalaji said the system provides many opportunities for vote manipulation, but in this election many representatives of opposition candidates were not permitted to vet the initial counting. He said it was also highly suspicious that 20 million paper ballots -- or more than half of those cast -- were announced as counted within three hours of the polls closing. Adding to the vote-counting challenge was an increase in voter turnout: More than 11 million more ballots were cast this year than four years ago.

Various analysts have used statistical analysis to poke holes in the final tallies. Renard Sexton, writing on FiveThirtyEight.com, noted that higher turnouts in Iranian elections have historically resulted in lower winning percentages. The turnout in this election was 80 to 85 percent, suggesting the vote would be much closer. "We would have expected Ahmadinejad's result from Friday, informed by the polling, historical trends and a bit of bet-hedging, to be between 40 percent and 55 percent," he concluded.

It is definitely possible that Ahmedinejad won fair and square, as this piece from the New America Foundation argues.

Like much of the Western media, most American “Iran experts” overstated Mir Hossein Mousavi’s “surge” over the campaign’s final weeks. More importantly, they were oblivious – as in 2005 – to Ahmadinejad’s effectiveness as a populist politician and campaigner. American “Iran experts” missed how Ahmadinejad was perceived by most Iranians as having won the nationally televised debates with his three opponents – especially his debate with Mousavi.


Similarly, Ahmadinejad’s criticism that Mousavi’s reformist supporters, including former President Khatami, had been willing to suspend Iran’s uranium enrichment program and had won nothing from the West for doing so tapped into popular support for the program – and had the added advantage of being true.

More fundamentally, American “Iran experts” consistently underestimated Ahmadinejad’s base of support. Polling in Iran is notoriously difficult; most polls there are less than fully professional, and hence produce results of questionable validity. But the one poll conducted before Friday’s election by a Western organization that was transparent about its methodology – a telephone poll carried out by the Washington-based Terror-Free Tomorrow (TFT) during May 11-20 – found Ahmadinejad running 20 points ahead of Mousavi. This poll was conducted before the televised debates in which, as noted above, Ahmadinejad was perceived to have done well while Mousavi did poorly.

American “Iran experts” assumed that “disastrous” economic conditions in Iran would undermine Ahmadinejad’s reelection prospects. But the IMF projects that Iran’s economy will actually grow modestly this year (when the economies of most Gulf Arab states are in recession). A significant number of Iranians – including the religiously pious, lower income groups, civil servants, and pensioners – appear to believe that Ahmadinejad’s policies have benefited them.
And, while many Iranians complain about inflation, the TFT poll found that most Iranian voters do not hold Ahmadinejad responsible. The “Iran experts” further argue that the high turnout on June 12 – 82 percent of the electorate – had to favor Mousavi. But this line of analysis reflects nothing more than assumptions.

Ahmedinejad is an extremist and is hard to engage. However, unless clear and convincing evidence of fraud is uncovered, the US should respect the election results and continue engagement with Iran.

No comments: