June 17, 2009

The results of Iran's presidential election are in. Mir Hossein Mousavi is claiming ballot fraud and wants an investigation. If that doesn't work, he's planning on making a documentary about global warming.
- Jimmy Fallon

Demonstrations in the streets are a curious thing, especially when they appear to be in favour of a media-popular goal. We never can resist an underdog story where the right person wins in the end, especially when that end comes within a month (or before the next media event). For some odd reason, no matter who wins, elections themselves increasingly seem to elect the wrong person.

On June 12, Iran's populace went to the polls. According to the polling records, 85 percent of eligible voters voted. At the end of it, a victory that seemed neck and neck going into the polls was given clearly to incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with 62 percent of the vote. The protests started within hours, and grew into street demonstrations within days. In those early days, the most common clips on the western media were variations of, "Well, no one I know voted for him."

With the exception of a few televised pictures, most of what we have heard since then has come from those Iranian commentators who speak English and live in the west. By way of comparison, speaking English in Iran would be roughly as common, among the same demographics, as non-Hispanics who speak Spanish in the United States. These, now, are speaking for their entire country. Most are speaking as though their own personal interest in returning Iran to westernised ways were representative of the whole. From every single one of them, we have heard that the recent demonstrations represent the popular will of the people.

Yet demonstrations, like anecdotal evidence, are not in themselves representative of the popular will. They are, however, representative of a significant contingent which is powerful enough to pull together a group with a common voice, which governments would be wise to take into account in their future choices.

As travel and communications become faster and easier, demonstrations have increasingly become a visual tool designed to manipulate the mass media and consequently world opinion. Again and again, reporters have discovered that demonstrations seem to arise magically the moment their cameras come out, to evaporate as quickly afterward. In the meantime, our television screens show us only the demonstration. Normal street activity just does not draw the same ratings.

Every demonstration, from the simplest group protest at city hall to a new grassroots political party to the kinds of demonstrations that brought Islamic Iran into being, requires a fair bit of background organisation from cellular leadership structures. Depending on the targeted medium, the targeted demographics, the means of accessible communication, and the era, the word may be passed through letters, tavern gossip, telegrams, small-scale home gatherings, e-mail, newspapers, licensed and unlicensed radio stations, or even a paper message passed hand to hand. Larger local mass media won't usually get involved unless they find a reason to support the cause: usually only after a tipping point has been reached.

Those in a position of established power value demonstrations only insofar as they bring previously hidden sentiments into the open, where they can be dealt with. Even in so-called free speech societies, opposition to policy is limited by access to government or private mass media outlets, by policies designed to result in disproportionate population representation (eg. district redrawing), by the implicit threat of lost income, or even by social shunning when not toeing the government line. In more repressive societies, it is quite common to crack down with riot gear, tear gas, and even bullets on demonstrations and other acts of rebellion, or even to preempt them entirely through government-sponsored home invasion and arrests which don't follow due process.

As stated by the losing candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, the premise of the current demonstration in Iran is that the official result of the election is a "dangerous charade". His newspaper, Kalameh Sabz, reports that personal identification numbers were missing from more than 10 million votes, making the votes untraceable. This is an interesting claim, considering that detailed voting statistical information of this sort could not be available yet. In fact, other protesters have objected to the election results on the basis that detailed election data has not yet been made available.

Kalameh Sabz also reports that some polling stations closed prematurely: which happens in every single election in every part of the world, not exempting the United States. For that matter, in every single election, some polling stations open late, or fumble electoral procedure. No perfect system exists. If an electoral loser seeks grounds for an appeal, they will always be available to be found.

Another basis for protest is that the results of this election came out within hours, despite having to count 39.2 million handwritten ballots. Iran's previous election results had taken longer. In and of itself, this seems odd: and yet other countries do manage full election results within a couple of hours. In particular, Canada offers a quirky example of what can happen when national results come out too quickly. A large majority of Canada's population lies within its two easternmost time zones. As the only fully federalist country which spans four (and 1/2) time zones, the results of federal elections were often clear well before west coast ballot boxes closed ... with every single one of the ballots having been handwritten and handcounted.

Some election results are said to have been called in without having been properly monitored. Again, this does often happen in some election districts. However, it would be appropriate for any investigation to determine how closely the questioned districts match those areas which seem to have vote discrepancies.

The next step is to look at the results themselves.

For a country with an established democratic process, the voting percentage seems very high. Even when significant change appears possible, as when Barack Obama was elected, only 63 percent of eligible voters turned up to vote (and that was the highest since 1960). Although regional results over 80 percent are typical primarily of small conservative communities which, by their nature, have a high vested interest in voting, broad results over 80 percent are usually typical only of brand-new democracies. Whatever Iran is, it is not a new democracy.

In Iran, as for that matter in the United States, rural communities are generally much more conservative than urban communities: which often develops into a deep rural-urban social schism. Friday's results show homogeneity across both rural and urban areas. This result bears looking into.

We can't take the previous polls as any kind of objective evidence. Even discounting vested interests, there are just too many other biasing factors.

We must also not forget our history. Ironically (but not at all illogically) for a rebel who had been arrested by the former shah, the Iranian government led by Mousavi was known for tolerating no dissent. We must not forget that Mousavi became a wealthy man under the existing Iranian establishment, that he had been political secretary of the Islamic Republican Party and chief editor of its official newspaper even before he was appointed prime minister, and that he never lost the full backing of Ruhollah Khomeini, the only supreme leader Iran as a whole has ever acknowledged. Mousavi's green is no less an Islamic colour than Ahmadinejad's black.

Make no mistake: this is not a democratic voice of freedom, but a power bid.

The net result seems to be that there may have been election irregularities beyond the usual human factor, and they may have been on both sides.The why is obvious, as is the how. What remains to be determined is the extent, the overall effect, and how strongly Iran's population feels about that effect. Of course, it is entirely possible that by then, the demonstrations will have preempted true analysis in favour of paradigm.

Are we willing to look into this glass and recognise a mirror?

Even among an audience used to laughing at Fallon's jokes, this one did not go over well. Audiences at such talk shows are prepared to be entertained and tend to be very vocal in their reactions: but this bit of political satire was greeted with something between an awkward silence, a collective hissing intake of breath, and a low mutter. I don't think I have ever heard such a reaction before on a late night show. In general, laughter greets jokes which are agreed with, boos those found inappropriate by the audience. But for this one, the implications are just too uncomfortable.

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