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A Recount in Iran

Yesterday, opposition reformists asked for a vote recount in Iran’s parliamentary elections, which took place Friday. Earlier in the week they had challenged the fairness of the vote.

Despite enjoying relatively strong support in Tehran, the reformists failed to win any of the 30 seats there. Allies of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on the other hand, won 19 of the contests in the capital. Reformists have a chance to pick up seats in Tehran in runoff elections to be conducted either next month or in May. In the meantime, they called on the Interior Ministry to release vote counts from each of the polling sites in the capital. The Guardian Council, Iran’s constitutional watchdog, said that a full recount was not possible, but it promised a “random” recounting of ballot boxes. The government maintains that the election was fair.

Umm, no. Reformists were crippled before a single ballot was cast. The Guardian Council disqualified about 1,700 reformist candidates, with the result that reformists could contest only half the 290 seats at stake. Even so, Ahmadinejad seems to have lost support: the election was widely seen as a referendum on his policies.

In one sense, the president’s setback does not matter: he retains the confidence of the cleric who sits atop the theocracy, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Yet Ahmadinejad will now face a stronger opposition in parliament. Rigged political systems, like Iran’s, run on signals, and the signals from this election show that Ahmadinejad has lost popularity during his tenure, which could undermine his chances should he run for re-election next year.

Fortunately for the fiery president, many Iranians have simply tuned out of politics. Turnout in Tehran, for instance, appears to have been half the national rate of 60 percent announced by the Interior Ministry. And even in the conservative outlying areas there is fundamental discontent: polling shows that about 90 percent of Iranians want the right to choose—and remove—the supreme leader. That will never happen as long as the theocracy exists, however. The ayatollahs maintain their limited political system so that they can gauge shifts in public mood and react accordingly. So far, despite widespread popular dissatisfaction, the system has worked to keep the clerics in power.

Fortunately for us, limited systems like Iran’s do not stand the test of time. People either take elections seriously and push for real power or they ignore government institutions and force change from the streets. Iranians placed faith in reformers and were disappointed during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, Ahmadinejad’s predecessor. The real test for the ayatollahs will be the protests that will inevitably come.