Iran Election Guide

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Iran Special Analysis: The "Invented" Election

On Thursday, as EA prepared to cover Iran's Parliamentary vote, a well-placed correspondent said, "The 2009 Presidential election was stolen. This one will be invented."

Three years ago, the task was not to "adjust" the 85% turnout. It was to ensure that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his faction prevented reformists and the Green Movement from taking the Presidency. This time, the immediate challenge was not to shift votes amongst candidates; it was to create those votes, if necessary.

For many weeks, the regime had been appealing to all groups in Iranian society, including reformists who had threatened to boycott the ballot, to turn out. Officials set a benchmark in their declarations, saying at least 60% of the registered voters would appear. Ayatollah Khamenei pronounced almost two months ago that there were be an "enemy-busting" 65% turnout.

And then this week the Supreme Leader raised the predictions into a promise. The high turnout, he declared, would be a "harsh slap" in the face of Iran's enemies. State media duly produced flyers and films elevating the statement to a mantra.

At that point, to modify Voltaire's famous statement about God, "if the 60% turnout did not exist, it would have to be invented".  Beyond the battles within the establishment that will soon re-emerge --- reduced to "Supreme Leader v. Ahmadinejad", but going far beyond this amongst the conservative and principlist factions and politicians --- the immediate demand on the regime was to establish its legitimacy.

The truth is that we will never know exactly how many Iranians -- amidst economic problems, worries over corruption and mismanagement, political in-fighting, restrictions on dissent and communications, imprisonments and harassments --- decided that voting might make a difference. 

What we do know is that Iranian authorities went to great lengths to set up and control the show. State and semi-official media were on a tightly-defined script. Print and internet outlets proclaimed the queues of voters that had gathered from 4 a.m., while State TV went to polling stations in photogenic, well-known locations which, being photogenic and well-known, would have the required numbers of people to be televised.

Meanwhile, foreign journalists, far from reporting the show, became part of it. They were put on buses and taken to three showcase stations. Given the necessary interviews with voters and areas to be filmed (and, to add an element to the Iranian presentation, asked to comment on their experience of the great Election Day), the journalists were then bused back to hotels and told to stay inside.

As blunt as this propaganda instrument may appear, it had some success, aided and abetted by unlikely allies. The significance of former President Mohammad Khatami's vote in the afternoon, caught and highlighted by State media, was not that it split those challenging the regime --- those persisting in opposition have probably set Khatami aside. Instead, Khatami's contribution was to give his political rivals and the Supreme Leader the recognition that they craved. This former President, who had previously complained about political prisoners and unfair elections, had now given the consent of his ballot. So how can anyone else dismiss the Iranian system?

There was also the support some of the foreign media being treated with such suspicion. CNN's correspondent Ivan Watson, who had been detained for three hours on Thursday for crossing the lines of appropriate interviewing, offered a video account which did not mention the controlled tour, let alone his stay in poiice custody. Instead, he turned his controlled, monitored interviews with voters into a story of principlist unity, supported by the voters allowed to feed him the lines.

The Financial Times put a distorted headline on Najmeh Bozorgmehr and Monavar Khalaj's story, drawn from eyewitnesses, which mangled their mixed picture of Tehran ---  "religious and poor neighbourhoods of Tehran were busy on Friday but they were largely deserted in central, western and northern areas" --- into "Iran Parliamentary Polls See High Turnout". Other outlets avoided reflection and went for a straight presentation of the regime message, as in Al Jazeera English's lead:

Authorities delayed the end of voting on Friday by five hours in order to allow more people to cast their ballots, with polling stations shutting down at 11:00pm local time (19:30 GMT). Iranian state media says the turnout in the poll was 65 per cent nationwide.

Yet, for anyone paying close attention, despite all the difficulties of observation, the cracks in the regime's PR offensive could be seen. Beyond State media's controlled presentation, eyewitness accounts --- reported by outlets like Deutsche Welle, the Wall Street Journal, and Italy's ANSA --- indicated light turn-out in many areas of Tehran and other cities.

Those accounts received support from an unlikely source. The one element that could not be manufactured by the regime on the day, beyond those showcase polling stations, was people. So photographs from Iranian sites like Mehr and ISNA, far from propping up the 60%+ narrative, showed only a scattering of voters in many locations. Even as Iranian officials were claiming high turnout in the provinces, they were denied by images from Kerman to Ahwaz.

There were the other telegraphed steps that tipped off the invention. By early afternoon, Iranian officials were saying that the polling hours would be extended. Of course, the stated reason was the unprecedented participation, but --- as an EA correspondent had projected at the start of Friday --- those additional hours would be necessary to bump up a real turnout that was unacceptably low.

And then State media, two hours before the polls did close, were putting out the assurance: the turnout had crossed the 60% threshold. Indeed, it was precisely 64.6%. A number that, if it was real, was coincidentally close to the 65.5% turnout that Fars, earlier in the week, guaranteed would materialise on Friday.

No, we will never know how many Iranians voted on Friday. But, of course, it is not the "real" number that matters; it is what Iranians believe the turnout to be. Inevitably, those who are fervent supporters of the regime will proclaim the "slap in the face". Those who are critical of the regime --- often outside the country, because of the risks of speaking out --- will never accept the claimed figure.

However, it is the wide swathe of Iranians between those camps that matters. Do they confer the legitimacy that this regime craves, hoping to sweep away all the doubts about June 2009? Do they at least passively accept that the Government, in whatever form it takes after the political shake-up of the next few weeks, and the Supreme Leader have a mandate to rule?

These are questions that will probably not be answered simply with the exalted 64.6% or any updated, even more exalted number. For soon, the vote will be overtaken by the economic and political tensions that cannot be swept away with declarations of the Great Turnout or, possibly, by the invocation of Iran's ever-present enemies. Even if the regime could bring out its people on Friday,, can it do so if these economic and political problems persist? 

One moment, overlooked by the international media but definitely noticed inside Iran, stood out on Friday. Former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, his own future a matter of heated speculation, gave the regime its superficial legitimacy when he cast his ballot. But he did so with a grimace, not a smile, and then he declared, "God willing, the election result is what the people want and what they place in the ballot boxes."

With that statement, Rafsanjani let it be known that he would not forget what happened in the 2009 Presidential election. But he did even more:  his implication of fraud was not just about past or current ballots. It was about the fraud of leaders who paid lip service to "what the people want" and then did not deliver it.

That, now that the cameras are turned off for Friday's show, is the persistent issue --- and it will take more than invention of a number to deal with it.

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