Did Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Steal the 2009 Iran Election?

Did Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Steal the 2009 Iran Election?

Complaint: Mousavi’s Observers Were Barred At Many Polling Stations

Election rules required that each observer be registered several days in advance so that he could be issued a special ID card for presentation on election day. The Interior Ministry had established a website for this purpose, and each candidate had registered thousands of observers – 40,676 for Mousavi, 33,058 for Ahmadinejad, 13,506 for Karroubi and 5,421 for Rezai. Mousavi had filed applications for 5,016 additional ID cards, so that he would have an observer for each of the 45,692 polling stations in Iran (40,676 + 5,016 = 45,692). The Guardian Council did not issue ID cards for these additional Mousavi representatives because, it claimed, Mousavi had failed to submit required documentation even though the deadline had been extended for him. It is not necessary to resolve this disagreement. For reasons explained at the end of this section, the vote counts at these 5,016 “unobserved” polling stations should be considered suspect and specially tested for fraud, initially by comparing them with vote counts at comparable “observed” polling stations.

On election day, none of Mousavi’s registered observers complained that he had been barred from watching when ballot boxes were sealed in the morning. Three days later, Mousavi alleged this had occurred in many places, though he did not specify where (then or later). The Guardian Council speculated that some Mousavi observers may have missed the sealing because many had arrived late, often “one or two hours” after the polling station had opened. Election officials were not required to keep voters waiting until Mousavi’s observers arrived, and they had not. Once again, it is unnecessary to resolve this disagreement.

Mousavi identified 73 representatives who had been turned away from polling stations. The Guardian Council investigated and confirmed this, but pointed out that none of the 73 individuals had been registered. It added that “there has been no report of any problem for those representatives who had ID cards.” Mousavi did not dispute either contention. The Guardian Council did confirm that five registered observers had been ejected from polling stations for alleged violations of election rules, though its report does not indicate whom they had represented.

Next, Mousavi complained that his observers had not been permitted to accompany many of the 14,294 mobile polling stations (usually a small truck or automobile) that, as in previous elections, had traveled to small villages, rural areas, hospitals, prisons and other places where people found it impossible or inconvenient to vote at a fixed-location polling station. Mousavi did not specify (then or later) where this had occurred, or how many times. Yet again, for the reasons explained below, it is unnecessary to resolve this complaint.

Finally, some analysts complained, in effect, that Mousavi’s representatives were barred from observing even after the election, because “the authorities refused to release the actual ballot boxes.” It is not clear what “release” means here. Under Iran’s election laws, when a field count is complete, the ballot box is resealed and turned over to a local election official for safekeeping for a prescribed period of time. No ballot box is ever “released” to a candidate (or anyone else) for private examination, for the obvious reason that tampering could occur. In some elections, some or all sealed ballot boxes are re-opened in the presence of election officials and candidates’ representatives, and the ballots inside are recounted. An extensive partial recount occurred in the 2009 election, for example: eight days after the election, thousands of sealed ballot boxes were reopened and millions of ballots were recounted – approximately 10% of the total votes. The Guardian Council had declared that all ballots must be recounted if the 10% recount revealed a significant discrepancy from the election-day count, but thediscrepancy was slight. Thousands of video cameras taped the recounts and all candidates were invited to send observers. Rezai sent hundreds; Mousavi and Karroubi declined to send any. Mousavi objected to any recount, whether partial or full, insisting that the election must be nullified and done over.

Although Mousavi made few specific complaints about excluded observers, some supporters later made sweeping allegations. Two months after the election, Ali Reza Beheshti, a top Mousavi aide, insisted that only 25,000 Mousavi observers had been issued ID cards, not 40,676. It has not been possible to investigate this allegation because Mr. Beheshti has neither disclosed his shorter list nor disputed any particular name on the Interior Ministry’s much-longer list. Mr. Beheshti also alleged that many registered Mousavi observers were barred from entering their assigned polling stations, or later were obstructed or asked to leave. He did not explain why Mousavi had not complained on election day about the exclusion or obstruction of any registered observer, nor did he identify any excluded observer when he made this allegation, or later.

Many Mousavi supporters have argued that Mousavi should not be expected to identify excluded observers or the polling stations that excluded them.

 An observer and his family might be punished if he were to claim that he was barred or witnessed fraud. Under this argument, at any polling station for which the Interior Ministry cannot produce a Form 22 signed by a registered Mousavi observer, the vote count must be considered invalid – even if the Form 22 was signed by observers for all other opposition candidates (Karroubi and Rezai had 18,927 registered observers).

If a Form 22 lacks the signature of a Mousavi observer (as many of the 45,692 Form 22s undoubtedly do) many explanations are possible – some innocent, others not. Perhaps the observer was arrested on election morning. Or someone may have beaten him, or threatened him or his family, or bribed him. He may have been improperly turned away at his polling station. Perhaps he was allowed to enter but was unfairly ordered to leave, or was blocked from observing. Possibly he witnessed fraud. Despite his broad allegations of wrongdoing, Mousavi has not identified a single registered observer who experienced any such form of mistreatment on Election Day, or any other form. Nonetheless, many of his supporters now argue that the Interior Ministry must prove that none of this occurred at a polling station, or else the votes cast at that polling station may not be counted.

Many innocent explanations come to mind for the absence of a signature on a Form 22. The Mousavi observer may have fallen ill or had a family emergency, or decided to depend on other candidates’ observers to watch for fraud. He may have learned that the local election officials were staunch Mousavi supporters. Perhaps the observer was present all day and saw no wrongdoing, but forgot to sign the Form 22. Maybe he witnessed no fraud but was reluctant to sign because he had daydreamed, or even fallen asleep, for part of the day. Maybe he refused to sign simply because he did not want to validate Ahmadinejad’s election. Any one of these reasons, or many others, could explain an unsigned Form 22 at a particular polling station. Mousavi’s observers inevitably would need to supply details.

So why not start with that? It is impossible to evaluate Mousavi’s allegations of misconduct if he refuses to supply details. One who claims electoral fraud is expected to specify who, what, where, when – not merely allege that many wrongs were done to many people in many places at many times, and then insist that the government prove that none of these wrongs was done to anyone, anywhere, at any time. A responsible government must establish fair election procedures and make it possible, without difficulty, for its citizens to verify that the procedures have been followed. If the government does not, a challenger may rightfully complain even if he has no concrete proof of electoral fraud. But if the government has satisfied this obligation, as Iran’s government did in the 2009 election, the burden fairly shifts to those who allege fraud. They must examine the available information and specify improprieties so that their charges can be investigated. At which polling stations was Mousavi’s registered observer barred from watching the ballot-box sealing, or turned away entirely, or ejected or obstructed after he arrived? At which polling stations did Mousavi’s representative refuse to approve the count because he believed it was incorrect or had witnessed fraud? Which mobile polling stations were Mousavi’s designated observers not allowed to accompany? If Mousavi’s complaints are valid, he must have all of this information readily available.

At least one Iran analyst has pressed the Form 22 argument even further, insisting (a year after the election) that Ahmadinejad’s election was invalid because the Interior Ministry did not scan all 45,692 Form 22’s – signatures, thumbprints and all – and post PDF images of them on the Internet. It is not clear why the government should have undertaken this effort, which Mousavi himself never requested (nor did any other candidate, in this election or any other) and which Iran’s election laws do not provide for. While this would have made it easier for Mousavi to examine Form 22’s, Mousavi has never expressed any desire to examine Form 22’s in the first place, and the Interior Ministry has never indicated it would resist such an effort, even today. Nor is it clear, if Mousavi sincerely suspects fraud, why he would prefer to examine copies of Form 22’s scanned and posted by the Interior Ministry rather than the originals.

Most important in response to this argument, it is not clear what this analyst hopes to establish by examining Form 22’s, whether scanned PDF copies or originals – at least at polling stations where a Mousavi observer was present. Regardless of whether an observer signed a Form 22, or even saw one, presumably the observer wrote down the vote count he personally witnessed. If his personally recorded vote count matches the vote count reported by the Interior Ministry, obviously no dispute exists. The votes cast at that polling station should simply be counted – regardless of what the Form 22 may state, or who may have signed it, or whether it even existed. Examining Form 22’s could be useful if a Mousavi observer ever challenged the Interior Ministry’s reported vote count for his polling station. But this has never happened: none of Mousavi’s 40,676 registered observers has ever disputed the Interior Ministry’s reported vote count for his polling station. Examining Form 22’s could also be useful at any polling station where Mousavi did not have an observer and now disputes the vote count. But there are relatively few polling stations in this category. Even if this analyst narrowed the scope of his scan-and-post demand, many would question his common sense. Anyone who sincerely believes that the Interior Ministry’s fraud can be detected by examining Form 22’s will prefer to examine the originals – not scanned copies posted by the Interior Ministry itself. After all, if the Interior Ministry misstated the vote count for a polling station, there is good reason to suspect it will try to hide its fraud by altering the Form 22 before scanning it.

Ironically, despite these arguments, and though Mousavi should supply evidence to support his allegations of fraud, it may be sufficient initially to require no evidence at all – to classify as “unobserved” every polling station at which a Mousavi observer did not sign a Form 22, regardless of the reason. This “unobserved” category would include each of the 5,016 polling stations for which Mousavi’s proposed observer was not issued an ID card, and might include hundreds or thousands of others. Presumably Mousavi’s staff already knows all polling stations in this “unobserved” category, or can quickly identify them by contacting his election-day observers. If so, Mousavi’s unresolved “excluded observer” complaints provide him yet another opportunity to make his case. If Ahmadinejad’s percentages were substantially higher at “unobserved” polling stations than at comparable “observed” polling stations, most neutral analysts would be suspicious. Although no two polling stations served statistically identical populations, statisticians should be able to identify sets of roughly comparable “unobserved” and “observed” polling stations, and then compare the Ahmadinejad/Mousavi percentages. Mousavi himself could start the inquiry with a rough spreadsheet comparison: compare Ahmadinejad’s and Mousavai’s percentages at all “unobserved” polling stations to their percentages at all “observed” polling stations. Once each polling station has been designated as “unobserved” or “observed,” such a rough comparison could be made in a matter of seconds. A more systematic comparison could be performed if any sign of fraud should appear.


Complaint: Many Candidates Had Unfairly Been Declared Ineligible

Some commentators complained that many candidates had unfairly been declared ineligible by Iran’s Guardian Council and, therefore, Ahmadinejad’s election could not be considered valid. A prominentNew York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, believed this was reason enough to dismiss the election even before it had taken place.

This may have been a valid complaint for the excluded candidates, and it reflects a shortcoming of Iranian democracy. But did it affect Mousavi? Obviously he made the list, and the exclusion of other reform candidates probably improved his chances. This may explain why Mousavi himself did not raise this point until after the election. One must wonder whether he would have raised it if he had won.

Though unfiltered democracy plainly calls for it, it is not clear that an election with many candidates will always reveal the voters’ will. During the 2008 US presidential campaign, John McCain once joked that he would be overjoyed if the Democratic Party found itself unable to choose between Hillary Clinton and Barrack Obama. In different circumstances, other US presidential candidates may have privately wished for the opposite. One wonders, for example, whether Al Gore in 2000 might have been willing to set aside his unquestioned love of democracy for just a day in order to exclude Ralph Nader from the Florida ballot.

Insistence that the Guardian Council should have approved more reform candidates brings to mind the old saying: “Be careful what you ask for.” In the 2005 presidential election, the Guardian Council had rejected two reform candidates, Mohsen Mehralizadeh and Mostafa Moeen, an action roundly criticized in the Western press and in a strongly worded public letter from Iran’s Supreme Leader. The Guardian Council reversed its decision the next day, increasing the number of approved candidates from five to seven. The three reform candidates in that election – Mehralizadeh, Moeen and Mehdi Karroubi – shared 36% of the vote, led by Karroubi’s 17%. Because no candidate had received a majority, a run-off election was held between the two top vote-getters: Hashemi Rafsanjani (21%), and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (19%). Many reformist supporters stayed home.


Eric A Brill

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3 thoughts on “Did Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Steal the 2009 Iran Election?

  1. The bigger and more important issue is the regimes brutal and shameful crackdown on peaceful protests… including the rape, improper prisoning and torture of innocent people.

    The fear it instilled in the people. The way it insulted them. The blood it spilled.

    Even if we were to take the official results, it still shows that millions of people supported the reformist candidate, but where is their representation? it is non-existant. for 10s of millions of iranians (be it 70+% or the supposed 30%) there is ZERO representation in the political process.

    4 years later, the two candidates are rotting away under house arrest with no charges or trial.

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