Friday, June 19, 2009

Ghosts of Elections Past

Andrew Sullivan, in trying to answer the question, “why did Khamenei fix the election?” points to a blog post by Brian Ulrich. Sullivan concludes from Ulrich’s piece that Khamenei fixed this election because he’d fixed other elections. This is not quite right.

What Ulrich describes, the Guardian Council’s “vetting” of candidates and restricting only those acceptable to the conservative clergy to participate in elections is not at all what happened in Iran on Friday. The Guardian Council’s restricting who may and who may not contest elections is a power it has exercised repeatedly throughout the history of the Islamic Republic. Certainly its barring 3,000 candidates in 2004 was unprecedented, but the practice itself is accepted.

Friday’s apparent fraud is something different altogether, however. As a friend of mine who lives by analyzing Iran put it, “You can’t call it vote rigging if they never counted the votes.” I think his estimation is correct. God knows what happened to the millions of ballots cast on Friday, but they weren’t counted. The results promulgated by the government appear to have been made up out of whole cloth. This sort of election fraud – utter disregard for the even restricted will of the people – is wholly unprecedented in Iran. It is astounding that Khamenei would attempt this. While we in the West have frequently in the past derided Iran as authoritarian, the Iranians themselves jealously guard the Republican aspects of their system. Khamenei’s outlandish gamble offended the sensibilities of the Iranian people – that there would be outcry is wholly unsurprising, that the outcry has been as vociferous and sustained as it has been this week is inspiring.

Today, some of the questions about Iran’s nascent revolution have been resolved: Khamenei was in on the fraud from the outset; Khamenei is siding with Ahmadinejad and the IRGC; the regime will crackdown brutally on any further demonstrations. Questions that remain are: Why didn’t Khamenei crackdown at the outset instead of allowing this to build momentum? Have the Iranians in the street coalesced around a common goal and defined success for themselves? Can the demonstrations be sustained in the face of what will likely be a withering attack from the government?

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