The Duck of Minerva

How do you say ‘hanging chad’ in Persian?

16 June 2009

The news yesterday that the Iranian Guardian Council has ordered what amounts to an inquiry into certain disputed ballots may at first glance appear as a positive development. However, it is not at all clear that simply recounting certain ballots is going to truly reconcile the apparent disparity between the expected results and the actual results. I would posit that right now you have the leadership in Iran scrambling to send signals both domestically and internationally that it will take the accusations seriously and act as an impartial arbiter, so as to avoid a number of unwanted outcomes (i.e. continued rioting, increased risk of internal revolt/revolution, international sanctions, etc). Of course, it isn’t clear what they could do to make these signals credible, but it is interesting that rather than simply suppress the outbursts by force (which is happening, although not to the full extent possible) they are taking care to not appear as a brazen oppressor and dictator–the optics still matter to them. Even dictators take into account how they are perceived by various audiences, even domestic.

In terms of the ‘re-count’, Renard Sexton at fivethirtyeight lays out the possible causes of the voting irregularities and what the corresponding recourse would be—with a re-count only helpful in one instance:

1. Intimidation and electoral violence: Reports of activities of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and paramilitary forces have been widely discussed. If Nate’s hunch is correct, perhaps 15% or more of the population was willing to abstain from voting.
Recourse: New round of voting

2. Deliberate misreporting of vote totals: The blogosphere has been buzzing with reports of Mousavi’s camp receiving word from the electoral commission that he had won the upwards of 60% of the vote, which was then retracted. If this was simply manipulation of the totals by loyalists in Tehran, and the political winds have shifted, the real total could possibly emerge.
Recourse: Recount

3. “Lost” ballots”: Allegations have also abounded that a significant number of votes were disposed of from areas of strength for Mousavi and Karroubi (probably Rezai as well, but few reports).
Recourse: New round of voting

4. Khameni decided ahead of time: There are commentators, expert and not, that have suggested that the whole electoral process in Iran is a sham, with the results dictated long in advance by the Supreme Leader. Similar allegations were leveled in 2005, when then-unknown Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won a surprising second place in the first round.
Recourse: Rioting in the street; move to London

Of course, a political-coup was likely orchastrated with the explicit consent and participation of the various power structures in Iran, meaning that it is highly unlikely that a re-count would actually show evidence of widespread fraud. More than likely, they will show sporadic fraud–enough to appear as thought they acknowledge some mischief, but not enough to swing the election. More than likely the only way you see real action is if the social movements get so far out of control that the leadership decides it has to enter into some kind of bargain to have any chance of avoiding a ‘green’ revolution. The calculas is not straightforward and relies primarily on the leadership’s perception of risk and probability. At this point, I am hardpressed to see a how Moussavi gets declared the winner without increased social unrest and violence. More than likely, there will be some kind of compromise–what that looks like I don’t know. I think an Iranian specialist would need to weigh in on what a potential bargian (if any) could look like.