Election Backlash Against Ahmadinejad
The final results of last week's city council elections in Iran exhibited a serious backlash against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and cast a shadow over his popularity. His closest allies conceded defeat to the competition, namely the moderate conservatives and reformists in Tehran, as well as most major cities in Iran. This election, the first since Ahmadinejad came to power and the hardliners gained control of monitoring ballots, was riddled with ambiguity and suspicion.
Concerns regarding ballot irregularities (replacement of votes and/or hand-made changes) increased dramatically when the Ministry of Interior (MOI) did not release the final result of Tehran's election until five days after Dec. 15. The reformists in Tehran, who believe they have the majority vote, have asked the government for a recount. The results were finally announced on Dec. 20, indicating that four reformist candidates were elected during Iran's third-ever city council elections, the most controversial since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran.
Ahmadinejad's followers only managed to send two candidates to City Hall. Mojtaba Hashemi Samere, deputy of MOI and in charge of the elections, (who also happens to be Ahmadinejad's advisor and mentor) faces mounting criticism not only from the reformist camp, but also from conservatives because of the poor management of the elections.
In Iran, Tehran's city council elections are considered one of the most significant, after the presidential and parliamentary elections. It is believed that the political party which controls the city council has a better chance of sending its candidates to the parliament and to the top office, since they have greater access to the capital's financial resources. Ahmadinejad was the mayor of Tehran before his presidential election in June 2004.
Just a few weeks before the election, some of Ahmadinejad's hardliner advisors branched off from the conservative camp and nominated their own candidates. They did not agree to join a coalition with other conservatives to form a collective front against the unified reformists. The conservatives' election failure has raised substantial criticism against the president's support for the radical faction of his supporters.
The head of the Cultural Commission in the parliament as well as a prominent conservative, Dr. Emad Afroogh was among the first to publicly react to the defeat of Ahmadinejad's allies. "People said a big 'NO' to superstitious sentiments, irrational expectations, delusions, and thoughts with no relation to experience or expertise," said Afroogh. Among the conservative and reformist middle class and intellectuals, these are well known characteristics of Ahmadinejad's style of governance.
According to Iran's constitutional law and the Supreme Leader, government interference in elections is forbidden. "Who can believe that the government did not interfere in the electoral process? Who can believe that the government was objective toward the election?" asked Afroogh, who also accused Ahmadinejad's friends of breaking the coalition of conservatives. "They should take lessons from the results of the election."
"As a political tradition in Iran, when a president comes to power he dominates the political discourse in the society. In the late eighties, when Hashemi Rafsanjani became Iran's president, he had absolute power and influence with his reconstruction and economic modification policies. His daughter entered the parliament as the top candidate," explained Dr. Karim Arghandehpour, journalist and political analyst. "In Khatami's period (1997-2004), his agenda on strengthening civil society and political development was the dominant discourse among the society and political forces. At the time, Khatami's brother took the lead in the parliamentary elections in March 2000."
"However, it seems this tradition has stopped since Ahmadinejad came to office. He figured his popularity had increased enough since last year's presidential elections for him to risk parting from the majority conservatives, and producing his own list of candidates called 'Followers of Ahmadinejad,' adding his sister at the top of the list," said Arghandehpour, former editor-in-chief of several reformist newspapers in Tehran. "Ironically, Ahmadinejad's list brought only three percent of the entire vote in the country, and his sister entered the city council with a minimum number of votes. These all reflect the diminishing popularity of President Ahmadinejad since last year. Many analysts believe he will have a weakened position for the next presidential election in 2009."
"Thirty percent of people participated in the city council elections in big cities such as Tehran, which is equal to the last parliamentary election in 2003," said Ahmad Zeidabadi, prominent journalist and analyst in Tehran, in a telephone interview. "Ahmadinejad's followers and traditional conservatives failed, and a new generation of technocrat conservatives led by Bagher Ghalibaf, Tehran's mayor, alongside the reformists, won the election."
Bagher Ghalibaf, who competed against Ahmadinejad during the presidential election in 2005, was the chief of police from 1999 to 2004. He was popular with members of both conservative and reformist camps. Since Ahmadinejad's ascendancy, he has very actively distanced himself from the president, and has cautiously moved toward the reformist camp. In return, reformists have supported his mayoral candidacy after this election.
Despite the official announcement of the participants in the election, the number of people who did not vote remained high. Zeidabadi believes in the wrath of the general public: "About 70 percent of the people who didn't participate in the last election refused to vote this time in most of the major cities. However, the participation in small cities and villages, which is driven by family or tribal competition, was much higher."
"It is also obvious that conservatives have made changes in the votes for Ahmadinejad's sister, to ensure she claims a top position above the reformist candidates in the final list, because the increase of her votes during last days before the results were released was abnormal."
Reformists believe that taking control of the city council in Tehran, which was monopolized completely by conservatives during the last four years, is the first sign of progress for their potential victory in the upcoming parliamentary elections in 2008.
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