Iran's vote count looks fishy

Many reasons to be skeptical

McClatchy NewspapersJune 18, 2009 

  • Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators flooded Tehran on Wednesday in the fifth day of protests to demand the annulment of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election, and more nationwide protests appeared to be in store.

    Defying a government ban on the demonstrations, Ahmadinejad's main election rival, Mir Hossein Mousavi, called for massive rallies around the country today to mourn the dead in previous days' protests. A leading Iranian human rights group said 32 have been killed.

    The government continued its crackdown on the opposition, reportedly arresting leading journalists and politicians. It expelled foreign reporters on temporary visas, ordered Tehran-based reporters to stay in their offices and threatened legal action against Iranians who have been filling the information void by e-mailing videos, news reports and pictures abroad.

    The regime also accused the U.S. of meddling in the crisis by making "interventionist" statements, which the Obama administration promptly denied. However, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday seemed to partially embrace the demands of Mousavi's supporters, saying that the "people of Iran deserve the right to have their voices heard and their votes counted."

    M Clatchy Newspapers

— In U.S. politics, it would be as if President George W. Bush won re-election over Sen. John Kerry in 2004 by taking Kerry's home state of Massachusetts, doing surprisingly well in liberal New York City and besting his 2000 vote totals by 40 percent.

What really happened in last Friday's Iranian presidential election, whose reported results have set off the deepest political crisis in Iran in 30 years, may never be known.

However, unexplained police movements on the evening of the election, the exceptionally fast counting of handwritten ballots and some inexplicable election returns are among the reasons that opposition candidates and analysts cite when they say they suspect the vote was rigged.

Iran's theocratic regime proclaimed incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the landslide victor, with 24,592,793 votes, compared with 13,338,121 for his closest challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, according to Interior Ministry figures as of Monday.

Ahmadinejad's opponents don't believe those numbers. They've taken to the streets every afternoon, wearing signs that say "Where's my vote?" or "I wrote Mousavi; they read Ahmadinejad."

Of course, it's possible that Ahmadinejad won. He's popular with many Iranians in ways that Westerners find hard to understand. A visit to a polling station in the eastern Tehran district of Narmak on election day turned up no voters in that Ahmadinejad stronghold who said they'd cast ballots against the incumbent.

There also are good reasons to be suspicious, however.

Huge turnout

Things seemed to go well on election day, when Iranians by the millions -- a record turnout, apparently -- gathered at mosques, schools and other voting places. Citizens presented their identification cards, received voting slips and wrote in their candidates' names. The candidates' names were posted on the wall for all to see. The voting slips went into large plastic ballot boxes, and voters touched their index fingers to pads of ink.

There were scattered reports of opposition candidates' poll observers not being allowed into polling places, but no overt signs of voter intimidation or other troubles, in Tehran at least.

What happened next is opaque. There were no international observers. None of the ballots has been seen publicly; they're under guard at the Interior Ministry in downtown Tehran, which is under Ahmadinejad's control.

By late Friday afternoon, the atmosphere in Tehran was beginning to change. Morning newspapers had carried news of "Operation Sovereignty," a police maneuver in Tehran that involved tens of thousands of police units. A reporter driving near the Interior Ministry at the time saw security presence being beefed up, as if the authorities expected trouble.

Aides to Mousavi, who have an obvious motive to say so, speculate that the votes may never have been counted at all.

If they were, the handwritten ballots were tallied amazingly fast. Around the time the polls closed, state-run news media reported that Ahmadinejad had a commanding lead of almost 70 percent with slightly less than a fifth of the votes tabulated.

On Saturday morning, officials at the press ministry posted a statement that foreign journalists' visas wouldn't be extended because there was no need for a runoff. However, government spokesmen had assured reporters all week that no results would be available until late Saturday.

According to Monday's Interior Ministry figures, only 420,000 ballots, a little more than 1 percent of the total of 39.3 million, were invalidated, most likely because of illegible or incorrect names written on them.

Ahmadinejad showed strength in surprising places, according to the official figures.

He beat Mousavi, a former prime minister and ethnic Azeri, in Mousavi's home province of East Azerbaijan, including the provincial capital, Tabriz -- urban areas were thought to be Mousavi's strength -- by 435,000 votes to 420,000.

The 24.6 million votes Ahmadinejad is said to have received are 7 million more than he received in a run-off that propelled him to the presidency four years ago. While that's not inconceivable, this election appears to have brought out many anti-Ahmadinejad voters who boycotted the 2005 election.

Ahmadinejad has dismissed charges of fraud. The Guardian Council, which oversees elections, agreed to recount some ballots. How many isn't clear, however, and there's unlikely to be independent oversight.

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