As always, the only thing that really mattered in the recent elections in the Islamic Republic in Iran was voter turnout. This is because, with all candidates approved by the authorities, the only choice that voters had was to go to the polls or not.
Before polling day, the leadership did all it could to emphasize the importance of voter turnout.
“Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenehi spoke of “a new vote of confidence” in the Khomeinist system. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad described voter-turnout as a test of his administration’s popularity.
What happened, however, was not what Ahmadinejad and Khamenehi expected.
Judging by official data published by the government and available on the website of the Islamic Ministry of Interior, a majority of eligible voters boycotted the exercise.
This was the lowest voter turnout in the history of the Islamic Republic in a parliamentary election, especially in urban areas.
Those eligible to vote in the first round numbered almost 50 million. (The precise figure given by the Interior Minister is 49,431245. That number jumps to almost 50 million in the second round as those who have just reached the legal age gain the right to vote).
However, the total number of those who voted was 22,832,000, a suspiciously round figure, about 46 per cent of eligible voters, according to the Interior Ministry.
From that total we must deduct almost two million votes, described as “wasted”. These are ballots that had been torn, doodled upon or had names other than official candidates added. According to Interior Ministry sources thousands of ballots had “indecent slogans” scribbled on them. This means that some who went to the polls did so to register a protest.
We have always maintained that even a bad election is better than none. If a bad government could be removed through elections, it would be wrong to dismiss electoral politics.
Last week we saw an imperfect election open the path for ending Robert Mugabe’s disastrous rule in Zimbabwe.
No one expects a similar event in the Islamic Republic, at least not this time.
Nevertheless, the Iranian election, too, deserves attention as a life-size photography of public mood.
Obviously, one cannot assume that there was no cheating and that no ballot boxes were filled for candidates enjoying greater official favor. Elections in Iran are not supervised by an independent commission, as is the case in genuine democracies, and candidates are not allowed to post observers at polling stations.
Even then,the latest exercise offers a number of interesting lessons.
The first is the implicit popular rejection of the Khomeinist system, especially in urban Iran.
In some cities, notably the national capital Tehran, those who voted accounted for fewer than 20 per cent of the eligible.
Average voter turnout in the main cities of Iran’s 30 provinces was just over 30 per cent.
In Tehran, that figure fell to just 19 per cent. Even then, most of those elected in Tehran in the first round won less than 25 per cent of the votes. Ghulam Haddad Adel, the current Speaker of the Islamic Consultative Assembly (Majlis), Iran’s ersatz parliament, topped the poll with just over 840,000 votes out of almost 10 million eligible voters. That is no more than 8.4 per cent of Tehrani voters.
A similar pattern was seen in Mash’had, Isfahan, Shiraz, Ahvaz and Rasht, provincial capitals where the Khomeinist establishment received a bloody nose.
In Abadan so few voters turned up that the authorities had to cancel the first round and order a re-run.
If official figures are believed, the Khomeinist system retains a popular base in rural areas and some small towns but would lose big in all cities with a population of over 100,000.
The second lesson of the election is the growing isolation of the regime in parts of Iran where ethnic and/or religious minorities predominate. Voter turnout in the province of Kurdistan, where almost half of Iran’s four million ethnic Kurds live, did not exceed 25 per cent.
In the province of Sistan and Baluchistan, home to Iran’s estimated 1.8 million ethnic Baluchs, most of them Sunni Muslims, fewer than 20 per cent voted.
Areas inhabited by Turkmens and the Taleshis, most of them Sunni Muslims, also experienced what amounted to a massive boycott. In Hashtpar, the stronghold of the Taleshis on the Caspian Sea, only 12 per cent voted.
The third lesson is that candidates least identified with the authorities did better than those known as committed Khomeinists.
Ahmadinejad supporters, representing the most radical faction, will have a majority of the seats in the new Majlis. Most of them, however, were elected with fewer votes than those independent candidates who also manage to win.
Candidates identified with the “loyal opposition” also won with a better margin. If the independents and “loyal opposition” figures did not end up with a majority, the reason is that they were not allowed to field enough candidates.
This means that a majority of Iranians would rather not vote for any candidate approved by the regime and that of those who do vote a majority would prefer candidates least identified with the system. Judging by the results of the first round, 67 per cent of the seats in the next Majlis will go to newcomers. This is a massive no confidence vote against the incumbents who claim to have given the moribund revolution a “second breath”.
A more detailed sociological study of the results could take weeks to complete.
But the first assessments reveal a number of interesting facts.
Chief among these is that dislike of the authorised candidates is common to Iranians from all walks of life.
The extent of the boycott was such that one cannot claim that only the better-educated and better-off middle class voters decided to stay home. It is clear that Khomeinism as an ideology has also lost some of its appeal among the poor and illiterate masses.
The message is clear: Most Iranians don’t want Khomeinism and, if forced to choose only among Khomeinists, would go for the least committed.
But what if they are allowed a choice between Khomeinists and non-Khomeinists?
That is the crucial question of Iranian politics in the years to come.