By Glenn Kessler and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
Millions of handwritten paper ballots were counted within hours. The challenger riding a surge of momentum and popular enthusiasm lost in a landslide. Other opposition candidates did poorly even in their home provinces.
There are many signs of manipulation or outright fraud in Iran's disputed election results, according to pollsters and election experts, but the case for a rigged outcome is far from ironclad, making it difficult for the United States and other Western powers to denounce the results as unacceptable. Indeed, there is also evidence that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the incumbent president deeply disliked in the West for his promotion of Iran's nuclear program and his anti-Israeli rhetoric, simply won a commanding victory.
Some analysts have suggested that the attention given the protests and anger in Tehran -- where Western media outlets are concentrated -- gives a misleading picture of the Iranian electorate. The official results show that the leading challenger, former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, was competitive in Tehran, losing by 52 percent to 46 percent, while trailing badly outside the capital. "You could get more of an impression of a horse race in Tehran," said Flynt Leverett of the New America Foundation, who said Ahmadinejad is a "really good campaigner" who blunted Mousavi's momentum in their final debate.
"There are suspicious elements here, but there's no solid evidence of fraud," said Walter R. Mebane Jr., a University of Michigan professor of political science and statistics and an expert on detecting electoral fraud.
The Obama administration has reacted cautiously to the unfolding events, expressing concern about violence and "possible voting irregularities," but at the same time saying it wants to continue efforts to reach out to the government and restrain its nuclear ambitions. The ultimate power in Iran rests with its unelected supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and U.S. officials have repeatedly said that he, not the president, is key to resolving the impasse over Iran's nuclear ambitions.
"We will continue to pursue a tough, direct dialogue between our two countries, and we'll see where it takes us," Obama told reporters yesterday. "I can't state definitively one way or another what happened."
The government announced that Ahmadinejad won more than 62 percent of the vote, compared with 34 percent for Mousavi, his closest challenger in a four-person race. Ahmadinejad won virtually the same percentage of the vote four years ago in a two-person race, but that result came in a runoff election. Seven major candidates participated in the first round of voting in 2005 -- when no incumbent was running -- and Ahmadinejad got 19 percent.
There were few independent polls taken before the election and no exit polls afterward, making it extremely difficult to assess the accuracy of the vote counts announced by the government.
A telephone poll co-sponsored by Terror Free Tomorrow and the New America Foundation, conducted May 11-20, showed Ahmadinejad with a 2 to 1 lead over Mousavi, but 52 percent of those surveyed either had no opinion or refused to answer, making many analysts wary of the results, especially because it was taken more than three weeks before the heated contest. When the poll was released, it predicted the vote would be "closer . . . than the numbers would indicate" and that no candidate would get the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff.
Meanwhile, other pre-election polling seemed to indicate some momentum for Mousavi, but these polls may be of limited usefulness. Polling in Iran is generally of questionable quality, and little is known about the details of those polls. One, for instance, appeared to survey only those who worked in government ministries.
Friday, on election night, Mousavi claimed victory even before the polls closed. But then the Interior Ministry, headed by an official appointed by Ahmadinejad, quickly declared that preliminary results showed that the incumbent won by a huge margin -- which was relatively consistent throughout the night.
One of the most suspicious indicators is that so many ballots were said to have been counted so quickly. The votes are recorded on paper, with each voter required to write the name of the preferred candidate on the ballot.
Mehdi Khalaji, an expert on the Iranian political system at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that votes at each polling station are supposed to be counted and recorded on a form with the approval of representatives of the candidates, the Interior Ministry and the Guardian Council, a 12-member body selected by Khamenei, the head of the judiciary and Iran's parliament, which validates the election. But the numbers on these forms remain secret. They are sent to the Interior Ministry, which tallies the various forms from polling stations and reports on the totals for each province.
Khalaji said the system provides many opportunities for vote manipulation, but in this election many representatives of opposition candidates were not permitted to vet the initial counting. He said it was also highly suspicious that 20 million paper ballots -- or more than half of those cast -- were announced as counted within three hours of the polls closing. Adding to the vote-counting challenge was an increase in voter turnout: More than 11 million more ballots were cast this year than four years ago.
Various analysts have used statistical analysis to poke holes in the final tallies. Renard Sexton, writing on FiveThirtyEight.com, noted that higher turnouts in Iranian elections have historically resulted in lower winning percentages. The turnout in this election was 80 to 85 percent, suggesting the vote would be much closer. "We would have expected Ahmadinejad's result from Friday, informed by the polling, historical trends and a bit of bet-hedging, to be between 40 percent and 55 percent," he concluded.
Mousavi, an ethnic Azeri, barely squeaked out a win over Ahmadinejad in West Azerbaijan province (49 to 47 percent), and lost handily to the incumbent in East Azerbaijan (56 to 42 percent), which is Mousavi's home province. Native sons do not always prevail, of course. Vice President Al Gore lost Tennessee, his home state, in the 2000 presidential election.
Mehdi Karroubi, another challenger, picked up 17 percent of the vote in the first round four years ago but managed just 1 percent this time around, including a paltry 5 percent in his home province of Lorestan.
Ahmadinejad's share of the vote was remarkably consistent as the vote count progressed; he had similar percentages from the beginning of the vote count through the end.
"The results definitely look suspicious, but you need hard evidence to know the election was cooked," said Joe Lenski, co-founder and executive vice president of Edison Research. "We may never find hard evidence here."
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.