Too Little, Too Late

Why the Iranian election was doomed from the start.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Since the Iranian election on June 12, onlookers have called for a recount to assess whether incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad actually won, as the election commission reported he had. It’s certainly true that the results are suspicious on the face of it. One example is the large portion of results available in an extraordinarily short period of time, given the fact that voters had to handwrite a candidate’s name on the ballot and that the counting had to reconcile the number of ballot stubs with the ballots.

But a recount is not the answer. Iranian’s electoral system is so fundamentally flawed that using the votes tabulated over the past two weeks won’t tell us anything. In fact, even starting from scratch and redoing the election process all over again, without major structural reforms, probably wouldn’t produce an accurate result. Only if Iran honors the principles for democratic elections laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the country is a party, will there be sufficient progress toward achieving public confidence. In the meantime, there are a host of big problems that are causing the Iranian electoral system to fall short of even minimal standards — and keeping Iranians in the dark about which elected officials to trust.

1. Lack of transparency at the polls. Transparency and checks, provided by candidate representatives (poll watchers), nonpartisan domestic election monitors, and international observers, are the keys to electoral integrity and public trust in polling operations. These safeguards are largely absent in Iran. Instead, the country’s more than 45,000 polling centers were staffed by electoral officials under the purview of the Interior Ministry — a part of the incumbent government. The election process as a whole is monitored by the Central Supervisory Committee established by the Guardian Council, Iran’s most powerful body. That council includes six theologians chosen by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and six jurists chosen by Iran’s parliament. Because Khamenei has sided with Ahmadinejad, concerns about the impartiality of the election overseers are certainly understandable.

As for independent observers, there were few. Candidates in Iran are allowed to appoint representatives to witness polling station procedures and lodge written complaints about the conduct of the voting. But not this time, reports indicate. The opposition claims that their representatives were turned away at many polling centers, and nonpartisan Iranian election monitors were not permitted, even though such monitors are recognized worldwide as a good means to reassure voters about election conduct. Nor were international election observers from established organizations present for the June 12 election.

2. Results determined in secret. In recent years, many countries have begun posting their official tallies for the public and the candidates so that anyone might unofficially tabulate results. In the latest Iranian election, no such copy of the official tally sheet was up for scrutiny, neither for the public nor for the candidates’ representatives. The results from the thousands of polling centers in Iran were added together in secret, with no candidate witnesses present. Hence, there was no independent confirmation of the official electoral outcome.

3. No guarantee that ballots are left untampered prior to a recount. When the Guardian Council offered a recount of "disputed ballot boxes" last week, opposition candidates were far from satisfied. Establishing whether the official results reflect the will of the voters would require an arduous process of locating every ballot box, reopening them, recounting the ballots in the presence of candidate representatives, creating new tally sheets, posting them publicly, providing copies to the representatives, and including candidate representatives at each step of the tabulation process. Even if this remedy was ordered and those steps were followed to the letter, the fact that the ballot boxes have been under government control since June 12, without independent security or observation, would justify suspicion. The possibility of ballot box tampering would undermine confidence in a recount. And given the margin of victory in the official results, a partial recount would be unlikely to affect the official outcome.

4. Minimum conditions for a new election. Unfortunately, even if the candidates’ demands for a new election were met, there is no guarantee that a second go-round would be any better. A host of minimum standards would be needed to honor the will of the Iranian people.

In advance of a rerun, for example, Iran would need to determine who would be on the ballot. As the system stands, the Guardian Council rules on which candidates are deemed fit to run. If a new vote was considered a runoff, the top-two vote getters in the first round would face off. But because the official result was not close enough to require a second round, the Guardian Council could arbitrarily deny top opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi a place on the ballot in a rerun. This is possible despite international principles confirming his right to stand for election.

If Mousavi and perhaps others were to participate in a new election, the country would have to ensure the security of the candidates and their supporters from intimidation and violence. The Basij militia, associated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, actively sided with the incumbent before the last vote. Militia members reportedly fired from the roof of their headquarters on June 15, killing at least eight people and wounding others. They have since clubbed street protesters. There are reports of additional deaths and hundreds of politically motivated arrests since electoral protests began. Freedom of political expression would also have to be secured. The government is interfering with cellphone service, text messaging, and other communications used to pass political messages and calls for peaceful meetings and demonstrations (though Iranians have so far outmaneuvered many governmental blocks). Meanwhile, the Iranian media is vilifying the opposition and the protesters, and the government has set foreign journalists packing — either for home or lockdown.

A rerun of election day would bring a whole new set of challenges. Candidate agents, nonpartisan monitors, international observers, and the media would all need to be allowed at each step of voting, counting, and results tabulation.

Short of such changes, a new election could well fail to meet the aspirations of the hundreds of thousands of Iranians who have come to the streets in protest. And short of a credible vote, the one thing that the government cannot win is the legitimacy conferred by its people.

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