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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Elections disappoint Iran's presidential camp

Early results from three elections held in Iran on 15 December indicate that Iranian voters have repudiated most candidates associated with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s political camp. The winners appear to be moderate conservatives, independents, reformists and former allies of the president.

By Kamal Nazer Yasin for Eurasianet (20/12/06)

In most instances in the three elections – for local city councils, the Assembly of Experts and a parliamentary by-election - voters tended to favor professional, moderate candidates over partisan radicals. Emphasis was placed on candidates with track records as individuals capable of getting things done.

Based on these preliminary results, the vote could be broadly interpreted as a signal that voters are looking for changes in government policies. The government, in any case, does not have election campaign allies with whom it can share blame for losses at the polls. Pro-Ahmadinejad candidates, apparently with the president’s approval, preferred to run their own campaigns to joining forces with onetime political allies.

In a departure from recent Iranian elections, turnout was also relatively heavy with many people who had boycotted similar votes in the past choosing to return to cast ballots. Official data put total participation at over 60 percent of registered voters.

"Through their massive turnout in the elections, people themselves proved there exists democracy in Iran" Parliament Speaker Gholam Ali Haddad Adel declared on 19 December, Fars News Agency reported. Addressing the Iranian cabinet on election day, President Ahmadinejad stated that Iranians had "demonstrated their vigilance and surprised enemies of the country," the Islamic Republic News Agency reported. United States President George W Bush earlier criticized the vote for leaving power in the hands of "an unelected few."

In the most important election of the three, for Iran’s main religious oversight body, the 86-member Assembly of Experts, the results show a general setback for the radical cleric Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, the president’s spiritual mentor. In Tehran, none of Ayatullah Mesbah Yazdi’s close associates were elected to the assembly. The cleric himself received 800,000 fewer votes than did his pragmatic nemesis, former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

A similar setback was recorded in local elections. According to official results so far, pro-Ahmadinejad candidates obtained less than 27 percent of the seats in local elections nationwide. The government on 18 December released results for 38 percent of the ballots cast.

Results for the parliamentary by-elections are still trickling in, but in Tehran officials announced conservative candidate Hassan Ghafouri-Fard, a former energy minister, and reformist candidate Soheila Jelodarzadeh as the winners.

In Tehran’s city council race, based on partial vote results to date, the most important local election, such candidates secured only four out of the 15 available seats. Reform candidates also won four seats.

The showing for pro-presidential candidates was not strong, however. The group’s top vote-getter, Parvin Ahmadinejad, sister to the president, trailed other elected candidates in 11th position.

Candidates close to Mayor Mohammed-Bagher Ghalibaf, a moderate conservative who has split with President Ahmadinejad and who receives high marks for his handling of such everyday matters as garbage collection and street sweeping, fared relatively well. Among these candidates was Tehran’s former chief of police, Morteza Talai.

The election process itself, however, has not been without controversy. Announcement of the final results for Tehran was postponed for the third time on the morning of 19 December, prompting worries by reformists and others that plans may be afoot to tamper with the final results.

These fears were reinforced after several alleged irregularities both during and after the election, reformist sources say. The sources take issue with what they term contradictory statements by the interior ministry and oversight bodies about the vote-counting process, and claim that ballot boxes were temporarily removed from a number of polling stations. The reformist press, for its part, has reported that some journalists were allegedly prevented from visiting polling stations, and some candidates’ representatives were refused observation of the vote-counting process.

Concern about these events has even been strong enough to prompt a liaison between three key anti-Ahmadinejad figures (former President Mohammad Khatami, former President Rafsanjani and former Parliament Speaker Mehdi Karoubi) and senior religious and government officials to lobby for a pro-reform list of candidates for Tehran’s City Council.

On 16 December, reformist candidates themselves met with Interior Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi to voice their concerns about the vote. Pourmohammadi has responded with a pledge to uphold election rights.

Meanwhile, Tehran is rife with rumors of vote rigging. Many people believe that the interior ministry’s incomplete vote results mainly come from areas of Tehran where the president’s allies are known to be popular. The results, the thinking goes, could then establish a benchmark for all Tehran that could convince the electorate of the validity of any altered results elsewhere.

"These conditions make people wary of all future [voting] results," Hassan Bayadi, a former neo-conservative ally of Ahmadinejad, commented on 17 December in the newspaper Hambastegi. "It creates rancor among the candidates."

"We’ve never had an election where after three days of vote-counting, no results are announced to the public," he added. "This is unprecedented in itself."

The man at the center of the controversy is Mojtaba Hashemi Samareh, a hard-line conservative presidential confidante and Ahmadinejad’s closest advisor. Last October, Samareh suddenly resigned from his position as Ahmadinejad’s vice president to take up a post as the interior ministry’s deputy minister for political affairs in charge of election supervision, among other responsibilities. Some local observers believe the maneuver was designed to allow Ahmadinejad circumvent the influential Pourmohammadi, appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Already there are calls by both right and left-wing parliamentarians to have Poormohamadi come before parliament for questioning about the election results. One conservative website, Baztab, conjectured on 16 December that if the controversy turns into a major national issue, a campaign may emerge for his eventual removal from office.
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