x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Debating Ahmadinejad

Jonathan Spollen makes the argument for both sides as the controversy over the Iran elections continue to grip Tehran.

Incumbent led polls before voting day The strongest argument in favour of a win for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad comes from a poll conducted in the run-up to the election by Ken Ballen of the think tank Terror Free Tomorrow and Patrick Doherty of the New America Foundation (NAF), which found that the incumbent led Mir Hossein Mousavi by a 2-to-1 margin. The sampling, from across all of Iran's 30 provinces, found that support for Mr Ahmadinejad stood at 34 per cent, with Mr Mousavi at 14 per cent; 27 per cent were undecided while 22 per cent declined to answer.

The survey also seems to undermine the claim by the opposition camp that ethnic groups tend to vote for their own, as Azeris, which Mr Mousavi belongs to, favoured Mr Ahmadinejad by 2-to-1 over the reformist challenger. Flynt Leverett, a senior CIA analyst for eight years, and his wife, Hillary Mann Leverett, a former US National Security Council official who participated in closed-door negotiations with Iran, both threw their weight behind the poll and made some observations of their own in a piece titled Ahmadinejad Won. Get Over It, for the NAF.

They point out that the 62.6 per cent Mr Ahmadinejad won last week was more or less the same as the 61.69 per cent he received in the second round of the 2005 election. They, like others who believe Mr Ahmadinejad won, also hold that the incumbent enjoyed strong support among the country's urban poor and refute the notion that the country's "disastrous economic conditions" would drain his support.

In their article they point out that 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." Among those who think Mr Ahmadinejad could have won or did win, many believe he has strong support in rural areas, where the populations are likely to be poor and religious and who make up roughly 35 per cent of the population.

Mr Ahmadinejad spent the last four years travelling across the country courting the rural vote, said Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, an economics professor at the University of Pennsylvania who was in Tehran for the election, adding that Mr Mousavi's campaigning was limited to Tehran and a few large cities. Moreover, the president's programmes to distribute income and wealth more evenly have "begun to bear fruit", Prof Salehi-Isfahani wrote in The New York Times.

"The so-called 'justice shares' that entitle each individual to receive about $1,000 [Dh3,670] worth of equity in public companies [and] pay out about $70 a year have been distributed to many in rural areas, and many more are waiting for their turn. "Others are waiting to receive funds for housing and marriage from various funds that [Mr Ahmadinejad's] administration has established." Prof Salehi-Isfahani concludes: "Once these factors are taken into account, it is not so implausible that Mr Ahmadinejad may have actually won a majority of the votes cast, though not those cast in Tehran."

Allegations of polling violations by the Mousavi camp, that include polling stations closing early and a shortage of ballots in reformist-voting areas, have also been dismissed. Ali Ettefagh, writing on the PostGlobal commentary forum, said Mr Ahmadinejad and Mr Mousavi had observers at every polling station, all of whom witnessed the voting. Not only does this make fraud unlikely, Mr Ettefagh wrote, the voting process as a whole "is exemplary, and conforms with established and modern election procedures in other democracies".

Allegations of fraud cast doubt on result The 2009 Iranian presidential elections were riddled with allegations of polling violations, from voter turnout in some areas exceeding 100 per cent to inexplicable voting patterns throughout the country. The Guardian Council said on Sunday that in 50 districts, more votes were registered than there were eligible voters to cast ballots, validating fraud claims made by conservative candidate Mohsen Rezaee. History offers statistical evidence that the number allegedly voting in favour of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president, seems improbable. The last time more than 80 per cent of Iranian voters cast their ballots, it was to give a landslide victory to Mohammed Khatami, a reformist candidate in 1997 when 70 per cent of the electorate - or 20,138,784 people - voted him in on a platform of liberalisation and change. This time, with a turnout of 85 per cent, Mr Ahmadinejad managed to garner 24,527,516 votes (or 62.6 per cent), 18.8m votes more than he received in the first round of the 2005 election, and 7.24m more than he received in the second round. According to a study by the London think tank Chatham House, for this to have been possible, Mr Ahmadinejad would have needed to win more than 44 per cent of those who voted reformist in a third of Iranian provinces in 2005, retain all of those who voted for him that year and win the ballots of every single new voter this year. Considering Mr Ahmadinejad's performance on economic issues over the past four years, during which Iran enjoyed historically high oil prices but racked up record high rates of unemployment and inflation, such a shift in his favour would seem extremely unlikely. More unlikely still, notes Juan Cole, a Middle East historian at the University of Michigan, were the wins Mr Ahmadinejad apparently pulled off in certain areas. Official results show Mr Ahmadinejad won in Tabriz, the capital of Mir Hossein Mousavi's native Azerbaijan province. Prof Cole points out that Azeris have traditionally voted disproportionately for even minor presidential candidates who hail from that province. "So for an Azeri urban centre to go so heavily for Ahmadinejad just makes no sense," Prof Cole wrote on his website. The same applies to the other defeated reformist candidate, Mehdi Karrubi, whose vote in his hometown of Lorestan plummeted from 55.5 per cent of the overall total in 2005 to 4.6 per cent in 2009. There, Mr Ahmadinejad benefited from a 50.9 per cent swing in his favour, meaning he captured 47.5 per cent of voters who voted reformist in 2005. According to Chatham House, "This, more than any other result, is highly implausible, and has been the subject of much debate in Iran." The mantra among those who believe Mr Ahmadinejad won is that he enjoys widespread popularity in rural areas and among the urban poor. But the Chatham House report notes that the notion that the countryside always votes conservative is a "myth". "In 2005, as in 2001 and 1997, conservative candidates, and Ahmadinejad in particular, were markedly unpopular in rural areas ? The claim that this year Ahmadinejad swept the board in more rural provinces flies in the face of these trends," the report states. A study by Walter Mebane, a statistician at the University of Michigan, comparing the votes of 2005 and 2009, finds that out of 320 towns, 192 show "suspicious" voting patterns. "It's not a proof by any stretch of the imagination, but it's certainly a more intuitive explanation to say that there are widespread distortions where people simply added a lot of votes or did something to augment Ahmadinejad's support," he said. jspollen@thenational.ae