Renard Sexton: A recount may not alter the result of the election

Thursday 18 June 2009 00:00

To understand why everyone is still struggling to work out what has happened in Iran, consider this: reports online yesterday suggested that some provinces recorded a turnout of more than 100 per cent. As a result, the announcement that the Guardian Council had authorised a recount of Friday's ballots has drawn a sigh of relief from many observers. Although the election results had been certified by the Supreme Leader and his support for the incumbent had been made clear, the theocratic leadership had relented.

But it is still not clear whether a recount of existing ballots will be able to even approximate, much less accurately correct, the dubious vote totals that were previously regarded as the official results.

Two main quantitative factors have called Friday's results into question. First, since 1985, voter participation in Iranian presidential elections has consistently risen. At the same time, electoral competitiveness has also increased.

As a result, even as reformers boycotted it, the 2005 election culminated in the first-ever runoff round of voting. With nearly 85 per cent turnout last Friday and polling data suggesting a softening of President Ahmadinejad's support, all indications were for a competitive first round this time, too.

More convincing, however, is that the provincial vote counts that were released on Monday were in some cases simply bizarre. The cleric Mehdi Karroubi, a reform candidate, nearly beat Ahmadinejad in the 2005 election, losing by just 700,000 votes. He posted commanding numbers in the western portion of the country, winning 11 of the 30 provinces, including in his home province of Lorestan. Karroubi beat Ahmadinejad in these provinces by an average margin of over 20 points, with Ahmadinejad averaging just 13.0 per cent. In 2009, however, the vote totals told a completely opposite story.

Earning between 53 and 71 percent of the vote, Ahmadinejad pulverised Karroubi's totals in those same 11 provinces. Ahmadinejad posted an incredible win in Karroubi's home province of Lorestan, where the regime claims he won by a margin of more than 65 points, a more than 110 point swing in support between 2005 and 2009.

As such, calls for a re-run of the election, rather than a recount, have been widespread. Unfortunately, it is not clear that either approach will in fact produce an accurate outcome. Either way, the fundamental question of whether top level manipulation has occurred already or would occur in a re-vote or re-count has not yet been answered.

While all signs point to a tainted election, the allegations of fraud have not yet been proven. And it is not yet clear is if the measures suggested would offer the public any real relief.

Renard Sexton is a Geneva-based analyst on international issues for polling website FiveThirtyEight

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