Without citizen oversight and transparency, 'faith-based' elections threaten democracy no matter where they are held...
By Brad Friedman on 6/13/2009, 11:19am PT  

It sounds a lot like Ohio 2004. A less than popular old-line incumbent facing massive public demonstrations against him and in favor of his main progressive challenger promising reform; polls that suggest a swell of support for the challenger; unprecedented turnout on Election Day; long lines at polling places; paper ballot shortages and names missing from voter rolls; widespread rumors, concerns, and evidence of voter intimidation and vote-rigging, all accompanied nonetheless by a general feeling among the populace that the incumbent has been turned out, only to learn from officials, late on Election Night, after secret vote counting, that the incumbent has been declared the winner of a second term.

The most substantive difference from Ohio 2004, however: the declared winner President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is said to have defeated his main opponent Mir Hossein Mousavi by a 63% to 34% "landslide," instead of the razor-thin margin seen in Ohio (and across the popular vote in the rest of the nation). In Iran, a result of anything less than 50% + 1 for the leading candidate would have triggered a national runoff election.

The other main differences between Iran '09 and Ohio '04: New York Times is already asking "Landslide or Fraud?" this morning; in Iran, supporters of the challenger are taking to the streets; and the challenger himself has already called the election results a "fraud"...

During a late-night news conference last night, after poll hours had been extended (in some places, but not all), purportedly to accommodate the massive turnout, Moussavi told reporters: "I am the absolute winner of the election by a very large margin...It is our duty to defend people’s votes. There is no turning back."

But by morning, after the remarkable official "results" were reported, declaring Moussavi the loser by a landslide, he issued a striking statement challenging the validity of the official results: "I’m warning that I won’t surrender to this manipulation," he said, adding "people won’t respect those who take power through fraud" and declaring the announced results "treason to the votes of the people."

In Iran yesterday, as in most of Ohio in 2004, voters cast their votes on paper ballots which were moved before being counted centrally, by supporters of the incumbent, in secret. Without public observation and oversight of the tabulation, there is no way to confirm the accuracy of the reported results either way. In Iran, as in Ohio in 2004, citizens are being asked to simply trust in the incumbent-controlled tabulation of what amounts to 100% "faith-based" election results.

"People simply don't believe the election results...at least supporters of Mousavi don't," Christiane Amanpour reported from Iran on CNN this morning. Comments posted on the New York Times website seemed to confirm her reportage. Where Iranian voters had posted optimistic comments about Mousavi's expected win on a NYTimes page asking for input from Iranian readers yesterday, by this morning, the latest comments had largely turned to allegations of election fraud.

"Everyone is thinking the same thing… that the election was obviously fixed," a commenter who identified herself as "Sara" wrote. "I’m sorry I voted, it was a waste of time and I donned the dreaded hejab in heat for no reason."

"It’s ahmadinejad’s biggest lie. he is not elected by iranians, the votes have been manipulated. every bodey in iran knows that, there is an atmosphere of hopelessness and depression in Iran," commenter "Salar Fallahian" posted.

"LIES AND GUNS WON," commenter "Cyrus" typed in all caps. "THERE IS NO REAL ELECTION BUT INSTALLATION OF A REGIME THAT HAS THE GUNS AND MEDIA."

And in another eerie echo of the 2004 U.S. election, "Saad Khan" noted reports that "many moderate names were absent in the voters list."

International "experts" are similarly dubious of the reported results this morning. "I don't think anyone anticipated this level of fraudulence. This was a selection, not an election," said Karim Sadjapour, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "In retrospect it appears this entire campaign was a show."

Mark Fitzpatrick of London's International Institute for Strategic Studies said, "The hardliners in the regime seem to have exercised all their levers of power to keep Ahmadinejad in place."

While Ali Ansari, the Director of the Institute for Iranian Studies at Scotland's University of St. Andrews, noted a point made by a number of disbelievers in the election results (after 2004, AP described similar voters in the U.S. as "dissidents"): "The election results are incredible. It's just nonsense ... If it was a genuine election landslide, surely people should be out on the streets in euphoria."

It's true that, so far on U.S. television anyway, there have been no signs of video tape showing jubilant Ahmadinejad supporters taking to the streets in celebration. Given his reported overwhelming victory, one might expect to see such demonstrations. I have a feeling they will come soon --- at least the appearance of one or two such shows of support, whether staged or not.

But again, as in Ohio 2004 (and, yes, even as in New Hampshire's 2008 Democratic Primary, when the announced results defied expectations in declaring Hillary Clinton the winner over Barack Obama, who'd seen huge public campaign demonstrations similar to Mousavi's in the days before the election), without full citizen oversight of every aspect of vote counting, the voters are simply forced to "trust" in the officially announced results, as tabulated in secret.

The threat to democracy itself, in all of the cases mentioned above, is quite clear. So is the solution: 100% transparency in every step of the democratic process. Yet, whether in the U.S. or Iran, those in power tend to do everything they can to avoid such solutions.

There is, however, one other key difference between Ohio '04 and Iran '09 as of now: Members of the Bush Administration aren't calling supporters of the challenger "sore losers."

Elliot Abrams, a former senior Bush Administration official, now a member of the Council on Foreign Relations called Iran's election an "apparent fraud," adding the results were "bizarre and unlikely."

"At this point one has to wonder about vote fraud," Abrams told Reuters without a hint of irony, warning "the legitimacy not only of an Ahmadinejad second term, but of the whole regime, would be in question in the eyes of many Iranians."

Sounds familiar.

Cross-posted at Commonweal Institute's Uncommon Denominator blog...

UPDATE 6/15/09: Please see Michael Jay's Letter to the Editor in response to today's NYTimes editorial in which they decry "no transparency" in the Iranian election and suggest "it certainly looks like fraud". He has taken my comparison between Iran '09 and Ohio '04 and very cleverly run with it in his "corrected" version of their editorial today. Moreover, I've now expanded a bit on what I was hoping to get across by this comparison in this new piece: "Russian Roulette...Without the Certainty".

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