High turnout in Iran elections could end 'paranoia' of leaders

While full results of Friday's Iran elections have yet to be released, the regime has trumpeted an official turnout of 64 percent as a public vote of confidence after the tumultuous 2009 election.

By , Staff writer

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    In front of a portrait of late Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini, former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani casts his ballot for the parliamentary elections at a polling station in Tehran, Iran, Friday, March 2. The balloting for the 290-member parliament is the first major voting since the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June 2009 and the mass protests and crackdowns that followed.
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Three days after Iranians cast ballots in parliamentary elections, the political impact of the results remains unclear, even as official media hailed "victory" with a 64 percent turnout that it claimed "astounded" foreign journalists.

Iran's Foreign Ministry today "urged enemies to bow before the grandeur and dignity of the Iranian people," after "another epic in the history of their [1979] Islamic revolution."

Those enemies were to be found inside Iran also, but have now been crushed, according to the semi-official Fars News Agency. It reported today that the high turnout in the first election since the violent aftermath of the 2009 presidential vote “showed people’s strong opposition to the seditionist moves started and led by the then-presidential candidates, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi” – leaders of the opposition Green Movement who have been under house arrest for more than a year.

Recommended: How much do you know about Iran? Take our quiz to find out.

Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert at the University of Hawaii, says that Iran's declarations that the vote was a "slap in the face" of enemies means that the "paranoia" expressed by Iranian leaders in the run-up to the election could possibly be overcome.

"Let us hope they will be happy. It will have benefits for everybody if the paranoia goes away, and they feel successful," says Ms. Farhi. "The problem within the context of Iranian politics is they keep saying, 'We have won,' and 'We have done well,' 'We showed them,' but then the political discourse continues to be quite paranoid about 'sedition' and the designs of the enemy, so it never seems enough."

How elections will shape Iran's future

Clarity about the results of the March 2 election has been in short supply; today journalists in Tehran who went to a Minister of Interior press conference to hear final results announced left empty-handed.

Hard-line loyalists of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are nevertheless reported by Iranian media to have gained 75 percent of the vote for the 290 seats in Iran's soaring, modern parliament building. 

When full results do emerge from a vote in which non-conservative opponents were banned, jailed, or under house arrest, the answers to two questions especially will shape Iran’s future political balance:

1) With this vote, has Iran's Islamic regime regained some of the popular legitimacy lost during the 2009 elections? In that vote, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was reinstated for a second term with "divine" authority – and a bloody crackdown that crushed protests against fraud by millions of Iranians who took to the streets.

2) How will this vote affect the fortunes of Mr. Ahmadinejad: Will he be a lame duck after first losing his challenge last year to the authority of Ayatollah Khamenei, and now face an even more hostile parliament?

Farhi, who has analyzed in detail many Iranian elections, says that the lack of a dominant force among election winners this time around is likely to boost Mr. Khamenei.

"I do see an increased segmentation – increased factionalization – within parliament, which means that no political point of view, among the hard-liners and pragmatists and traditionalists, have really done well,” says Farhi. This will yield "increased power on the part of Khamenei because there is going to be more fighting in parliament, and everyone is going to end up going to Khamenei to come and fix things."

Ahmadinejad's sister lost her bid for election

For months, the regime called for a high turnout in Friday's vote, equating it to proof of legitimacy and a way of defeating Iran's enemies – and even as a shield from attack by the US or Israel over Iran's nuclear program.

But despite the certitude of official statements about strategic "victory," the results of the tactical battles waged at 47,000 polling stations is less clear.

Only five candidates in Tehran appear to have got past the 25 percent threshold to win one of the capital's 30 seats in the first round, according to Iranian news reports. Some further indicate that fully one-third of named winners so far are independents – and so it is unclear if they will support or challenge Mr. Ahmadinejad in coming clashes in parliament.

Among the losers was Parvin Ahmadinejad, a sister of the president who lost in their hometown of Garmsar, which added weight to reports that loyal supporters of the president – whose aides have been charged with leading a "deviant current" – were trounced.

Fuzzy math

Questions remain about exactly how many of Iran's 48 million voters turned out – with officials changing that precise figure three times since Friday.

In Tehran, where opposition and reformist support has been strongest, witnesses noted that many polling stations were empty. And there was also confusion about how the 8.8 million eligible voters in Tehran and Alborz Province in 2008, had somehow officially dropped by some 2.6 million.

One Iranian joke doing the rounds on Twitter today encapsulated the doubt: "80 percent of the people are sitting at home watching 70 percent of the population vote on TV."

A photograph of one spoiled Iranian ballot appeared on Facebook, scrawled across with the words in Persian: "Death to this rotten regime that forces me to vote for a stamp in my ID card!"

Still, officials crowed about a record-breaking turnout for a parliamentary vote, which in past elections in 2004 and 2008 barely topped 50 percent.

"For people who doubted the legitimacy of the election process, they have not been able to do anything to convince them that this is a legitimate process,” says Farhi, contacted in Honolulu.

Ahmadinejad's power likely to be curbed

A key question is how the results will affect the power struggle between rival conservative factions of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad.

Though Khamenei gave unequivocal support to Ahmadinejad in 2009, that calculation has changed dramatically since Ahmadinejad’s reelection sparked the worst streets protests in three decades. Now it appears that the fiery president’s power will be curbed further.

“While the Islamic Republic’s system is far too complex to reduce it to the plaything of the Supreme Leader, ‘stability’ – if not legitimacy – lay in an arrangement in which he and his circle could be assured that they would not face trouble from a president, parliament, or judiciary,” notes an analysis about the election result by Scott Lucas on the EAWorldview website.

The scale of that adjustment has yet to be seen, and may not be clear until deputies actually take their seats.

“It is still not clear if Mr. Ahmadinejad has been hit hard or not,” conservative Iranian analyst Amir Mohebian told the Financial Times in Tehran.

Ahmadinejad "is still the president of Iran, so you have to pay attention" to the policies he will pursue, says Farhi. "But in terms of him trying to create a legacy, an organizational backbone that would enhance the position of people like him in the future, that has not happened."

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