For the first time since the founding of the Islamic Republic, following the Shah’s overthrow by massive street demonstrations, the power of the state is being challenged. A broad-based coalition of reformist and pragmatic conservative Islamic elements has risen peacefully against the contested re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the hard line clerics, Revolutionary Guard commanders and intelligence officials around him.
The unseemly haste with which a landslide victory was attributed to Ahmadinejad has led to a protest unparalleled since the 1979 anti-Shah revolution. The poll was viewed as a referendum not only on the curtailment of social and cultural freedoms of Iranians, and the mismanagement of the economy, but also Ahmadinejad’s unnecessarily provocative statements on Iran’s relations with the West and Israel, as well as the nuclear issue. So, the outcome of the current crisis will reverberate beyond Iran’s border.
Shaken by the protest, the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei asked the 12-member Guardian Council to investigate the challengers’ complaints. The Council is the ultimate authority for validating the poll. Its decision could go down in history as a crucial turning point for the Islamic Republic and the region.
In many ways this election has been different. Traditionally, the Iranian regime loosens its iron grip over dissenters and oppositionists during the presidential election campaign, and rules regarding watching satellite TV are relaxed in a bid to encourage voters to participate in the poll.
The three 90-minute TV debates between the incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and each one of his three challengers provided an unprecedented opportunity for the opposition leaders to criticise the government before an estimated audience of 50 million. These no-holds barred debates proved thrilling. This was particularly true of the one between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi, who was Iran’s prime minister during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. At one point Mousavi derided Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy as one founded on “adventurism, illusionism, exhibitionism, extremism and superficiality”.
Also unique to this election, young supporters of Mousavi used text messages as never before to shore up votes for him. Enthusiastic backing by Mohammed Khatami, the elder statesman of the reformist camp, bolstered Mousavi’s standing too, and led to massive pre-election rallies.
At 84 per cent, voter participation was the second highest after the record 88 per cent in 1997 when seven out of ten voters backed Khatami as president.
As a rule, a high turn-out means that more of the upper-middle and upper class Iranians - often secular - bothered to go to the polling stations. In general, as a largely alienated group in a theocratic system, they find voting pointless. The second highest voter turn-out in the 11th presidential poll on June 12 indicated a surge of support for reformist Mousavi against Ahmadinejad.
It was not just the professional pollsters who predicted victory for Mousavi - albeit based on samples limited to ten largest cities - but also a private polling of 5,000 Iranians conducted nationwide for Khamanei. Its result, leaked to the Sunday Times of London, showed 58 per cent backing Mousavi.
Little wonder that the official result of 62.6 per cent for the incumbent and nearly 34 per cent for Mousavi - collated and announced within two hours of the polling ending at midnight without the presence of the candidates’ monitors - came as a shock to most people in Iran and abroad.
Since then, among the varying statistics that have appeared on the opposition websites, one, attributed to an “informed source” in the Interior Ministry, gives Mousavi 57.2 per cent of the vote, Ahmadinejad 28 per cent, and the remaining two contestants together nearly 15 per cent, versus the 3 per cent accorded to them by the official count.
At home, the silent marches of hundreds of thousands of supporters of Mousavi in Tehran and other cities on June 15 and 16 showed the widespread distrust of the poll results.