THE elections in Iran that have returned President Ahmedinejad by a large majority had been anticipated with uncommon interest. That country has a complicated system of rule in which the ultimate guardians and arbiters are senior clerics. Thus certain limits are laid down for the secular administration, but without greatly diminishing the role of the elected Presidency and Parliament which have their own extensive sphere of action and are responsible for the normal governance of the country. The character of the state and the prominent role of the clerics derive from the Islamic Revolution of 1979, but that is now thirty years old and a new generation has come up that seeks relief from some of the austerities associated with it.
Hence the hope invested in Mr Mousavi, the rival candidate, who appeared to be something of a liberaliser. Not that he campaigned against the state structure as it exists: he has been Prime Minister in the past and is thus very much part of the system. But he was expected to curb some of the harsh measures that affect personal life and social activity, thereby permitting a more relaxed existence for people at large and a more open policy towards international relationships.
This drew him much support from the more sophisticated urban groups, especially in the capital Teheran, who joined enthusiastically in the election campaign and seemed convinced that their man would win.
THE election results thus came as a great disappointment to Mr Mousavi's supporters. Allegations of rigging were quick to surface. In fact, even during the campaign the ruling group of Mr Ahmedinejad had been accused of misusing state facilities for political advantage. During the election itself, there were some signs suggesting that all had not been above board, which further fuelled the allegations of rigging.
Since the result was declared, riding on the huge public discontent, Mr Mousavi has been leading a campaign of resistance and demanding annulment of the result on account of the poll process being hopelessly corrupted. He has several times expressed readiness to take part in the re-run of the election that he has demanded. All this was dismissed rather summarily by the winner, Mr Ahmedinejad, who said that his rival had been defeated and should accept the result. He also threatened to expose more cases of corruption by prominent persons, which was taken as a reference to former President Rafsanjani and showed the bitter differences between senior leaders thrown up as a result of the elections.
After such a divisive election, it was perhaps inevitable that in the aftermath there should be bad blood between the contending parties. What has made the situation very unsettled is the readiness, and ability, of both sides to organize mass demonstrations on the streets of Teheran. Mr Ahmedinejad’s supporters were out in force immediately after the result, to demonstrate his popular support. More strikingly, Mr Mousavi’s supporters, and he himself, have been taking part in massive demonstrations in the centre of Tehran. They have defied prohibitory orders and seem, by their sheer mass, to have quelled police efforts to make them back down. Thus we have seen Teheran brought to a halt by vast crowds flooding into the streets: the more upscale northern part of the city has turned out for the losing candidate, elsewhere there seems to be greater support for the incumbent President. These events come as a reminder that twice before in the last decade there have been large, disruptive street demonstrations by angry participants demanding change, but on these earlier occasions they did not get very far and achieved little.
However, this time the numbers involved are of a different order, so the effect has not dissipated quite so readily. In other major cities besides Teheran, Mr Mousavi’s supporters have also come out on the streets, so there is a sense of widespread disaffection with the conduct of the elections. Further demonstrations have been promised for the coming days.
Mr Mousavi's demand for annulment and a fresh election were addressed against this background to the country's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Being backed by a huge display of public sentiment, they could not be ignored. Significantly, the Ayatollah’s initial response was to confirm the election result and state that Mr Ahmedinejad was the legitimate victor. But this did not go down well with the masses backing the rival candidate, nor did it address their specific concerns about election malpractices. Objective observers, even some sympathetic to the incumbent regime, had been forced to conclude that, in some areas at least, malpractices had occurred. There was also resentment at the fact that the result had been declared with only some 20 per cent of the vote counted, which seemed to reveal the inclinations and prior decisions of the people responsible for conducting the polling. So the outcry did not die away and there were some cases of violence and loss of life to mar the demonstrations.
A ten-day respite
IN the face of the mounting pressure, the Supreme Leader felt it necessary to amend his initial stand. He referred the matter to the Guardian Council, the highest state authority, whose decision would be binding. A ten-day respite was expected. However, the Council has been quick to reach a decision and has come out with significant concessions to the irate masses surging through the streets. The election has not been annulled but re-counts are to take place in areas contested by losing candidates. What precisely this implies, and whether it would be sufficient to allay the passions of the opposition, is not yet clear. Yet the decision of the Guardian Council is obviously a response to pressure from below, which is a very unusual occurrence.
The high drama of the last few days has shown Iran's democracy in a fresh light. The scale of the public anger and refusal to accept what was believed to be a doctored result appears to have surprised the authorities. But so far at least, the demonstrations have been aimed at persuading those in final authority rather than challenging their hold on power. Comparisons have been made between the current show of public disaffection and the massive manifestations that paved the way for the return on Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. But on present reckoning, such comparisons are far-fetched. What has been seen is a demand for the system to work in a fair manner, not a demand for its replacement.
The situation is still working itself out and any conclusions about where it could lead would be premature. The international reaction has been restrained, for on all sides people are waiting to see what eventually happens. The fact that the result has not been annulled gives an advantage to the incumbent President but it is to be seen how far he must bend to accommodate the determined opposition to his rule.
Salman Haidar is India's former Foreign Secretary
Source: The Statesman, Kolkata