Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Was the Iranian Election Actually Fair? Probably Not.

Terror Free Tomorrow, along with the New America Foundation, make the case that the Iranian election results could be accurate:

The election results in Iran may reflect the will of the Iranian people. Many experts are claiming that the margin of victory of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the result of fraud or manipulation, but our nationwide public opinion survey of Iranians three weeks before the vote showed Ahmadinejad leading by a more than 2 to 1 margin -- greater than his actual apparent margin of victory in Friday's election.

I see a few problems with this.

To start with, their polling was taken three weeks ago -- and Iran's election cycle is roughly four weeks long. I know that seems remarkable to Americans that opinions can change so much so rapidly, but we have the longest election cycle in the world. In most elections, campaigns are run over a very short amount of time and a lot of mobilization is done that changes opinion polling very rapidly.

Secondly, Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com -- no slouch when it comes to polling -- raises a few questions about their conclusions:

Well, indeed, Ahmadinejad has more than twice as much of the vote as his next-closest rival, Mir Hossein Mousavi. But he also only has 33.8 percent of the total vote. Between them, indeed, Ahmadinejad and Mousavi only have 47.4 percent of the vote. Where does the rest of the vote go?

Not to the other candidates, Karroubi and Rezai. The poll -- correctly, apparently -- predicted that they would only account for a small fraction of the vote.

Some 7.6 percent of the respondents said they weren't planning to vote for anybody. There's nothing particularly suspicious about this; turnout in Iran, while high by American standards, is certianly not 100 percent and this poll was not screened for likelihood of voting, as most American-based polls are. An earlier question, Q25, asked people directly whether they intended to vote in the June elections and 6.8 percent said no, closely matching this figure.

It's the other two categories, however, which give one pause.

Firstly, some 27.4 percent of Iranians told TFT they were undecided. By comparison, a month before the U.S. presidential election, about 5-9 percent of respondents generally claimed to be undecided. Perhaps it is folly to try and extrapolate the Western experience to Iran -- but for 27 percent of the voters to claim to be undecided one month before a high-profile, high-turnout election strikes me as unlikely. Iran is a relatively sophisticated and dare I say stubborn country where people debate politics regularly and vigorously. They might not have told TFT whom they were planning to support -- but that doesn't mean they were truly undecided.


While it is dangerous to make inferences about the preferences of undecided voters, the fact that the Iranians in their survey did tend to favor reformist positions on most issues, and had generally tepid reviews of Mr. Ahmadinejad performance, would seem to provide a few hints. For example:
* 68 percent of respondents said they favoried Iran working with the United States to end the Iraq war;
* 77 percent favored normalized trade relations with the United States;
* 76 percent favor having the Supreme Leader be directly elected, rather than undemocratically appointed.
And on Mr. Ahmadinejad's performance:
* 45 percent said Ahmadinejad's policies had succeeded in reducing unemployment; 44 percent said they had not succeeded;
* 28 percent said Ahmadinejad had fulfilled his promise to "put oil money on the tables of the people themselves"; 58 percent said he had not succeeded.

In a nutshell: the polling done that the authors of the WaPo op-ed claim proves that it may've been a fair election shows that there were a huge number of undecided voters and that those voters did not actually support most of the incumbent's policies.

What that really means here is that the organizations that commissioned this polling are trying to make the case that Ahmadinejad was actually rightfully chosen despite the fact that their own data shows that this is quite unlikely.

Now why would they try to do that? Let's take a look at the organization taking the lead on this polling, Terror Free Tomorrow. This is the composition of their Advisory Board:

Lee H. Hamilton
John McCain
William H. Frist
Charles S. Robb
Thomas H. Kean

All of those folks are foreign policy hawks. It's in their interest to legitimatize as aggressive a leadership in Iran as possible -- they want to be able to justify further hardline policies.

Heck, look at one of their other polls, where they claim that because the populations of Muslim countries favored US aid, that they "welcome the presence of the US Navy" in their countries.

While this doesn't inherently prove that they have an agenda with this polling, it definitely raises questions.

Thankfully, I doubt their op-ed in today's Washington Post will change any minds by itself

The sight of so many in Iran risking everything to demand electoral fairness is more than enough to confirm in the minds of most Americans that something did not go down well here.


Ideacanon said...

It seems that when the West doesn't get what they bargained for a red card is thrown up.
Where was all this hoopla and media intrusion during the 2004 US "democratic" election?

Zaid at UGA said...

I agree that the 2000 and 2004 elections had a lot of electoral fraud; and the US system itself is not very democratic (gigantic incumbent advantage, huge fundraising barriers, biases against third parties and independents).

However I consider myself independent of validating the US system when I criticize the Iranian one.