Yesterday and today, a plethora of U.S. editorials and articles and blog posts have forcefully debated whether incumbent conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or challenging reformer Mir Hossein Mousavi won the Iranian election.
"The shock of the 'Iran experts' over Friday’s results is entirely self-generated, based on their preferred assumptions and wishful thinking," Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett wrote in Politico, in an article titled "Ahmadinejad won. Get over it."
The word most commonly used elsewhere, though, is "theft." Senator John McCain, for one, called for Obama to "condemn the sham, corrupt election" to "make sure that the world knows that America leads."
Certainly, the evidence of tampering is everywhere. Millions of paper ballots were counted in just two hours. Mousavi lost his home district. (Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight has excellent empirical posts on the subject.)
But we have no smoking gun and no decisive determination of what happened -- no sure way of knowing if Ahmadinejad stole the election from Mousavi, or the election was fair, or Ahmadinejad stole an election he won.
And, in some way, I find the uncertainty of what happened in Iran a bigger concern than obvious fraud. We know how to respond to election-thieves. But how do you react to a question mark?
France and Britain have come out against the results. The Obama White House, characteristically, has responded with a light touch, little more than prudent-seeming and non-speculative statements -- condemning the violence and offering respect for Iranian self-determination.
But with no sense of what really happened in Tehran, it's hard to assess the policy responses as well. If Ahmadinejad tamps down rebellion and continues on the same path, what would be the best response, then?
The big Iran news today is that the Guardian Council, the clerical body that oversees elections and is controlled by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has agreed to recount certain ballots disputed by Mir Hossein Mousavi's campaign.
This is, of course, a ruse -- a delaying tactic meant to divide the opposition by peeling off its most moderate members. Mousavi wants a complete annulment of Friday's official results.
Also of note: Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani -- who has congratulated Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on his "victory" -- blamed the interior ministry for the recent attacks on students at Tehran University.
Hossein Ali Montazeri -- Iran's most prominent "dissident ayatollah" -- is now telling the protesters to use peaceful means to express their grievances. I'm not sure how influential Montazeri, once thought to be Khomenei's heir, really is today, but his opinion surely carries some weight. There's still no word from Rafsanjani. [UPDATE: Translation of Montazeri's statement.]
Finally, I'm sad to learn that reformist cleric Mohammad Ali Abtahi has reportedly been arrested. I've been reading his blog sporadically for years, but it seems to be offline now. Abtahi, a former Khatami deputy who backed Karroubi in these elections, was frequently quoted in the Western press.
It will be interesting to see what happens during today's dueling demonstrations, and whether Mousavi's call for a general strike is being observed. State media has called on Iranians to protest against "outlaws," and Mousavi is reportedly telling his supporters not to demonstrate today. Still, that's what he said yesterday -- and people came out in droves anyway. It's not clear to what extent he controls this movement.
One ominous sign that Ahmadinejad thinks he has this situation under control? He went ahead with a planned trip to Russia despite the unrest back home. I see that he met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Perhaps the two of them compared notes on how to steal an election?
VLADIMIR RODIONOV/AFP/Getty Images
I remain a little taken aback that some people -- like Newsweek's Christopher Dickey in the below quote -- seem ready to believe that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the Iranian presidential election fair and square:
It appears that the working classes and the rural poor—the people who do not much look or act or talk like us—voted overwhelmingly for the scruffy, scrappy president who looks and acts and talks more or less like them. And while Mousavi and his supporters are protesting and even scuffling with police, they are just as likely to be overwhelmed in the streets as they were at the polls.
Juan Cole has already ably dispensed with such arguments, but here's something else to consider. If Ahmadinejad were really the victor, why would he be detaining the opposition? Why kick out foreign journalists? And check out this chilling quote, referring to Mousavi:
He ran a red light, and he got a traffic ticket,” Mr. Ahmadinejad said of his rival, during a news conference at the presidential palace.
According to the New York Times, Mousavi remains at home "with police closely monitoring his movements."
These are not the actions of a magnanimous, confident victor:
Three Middle East experts weigh in on the situation in Iran, and what the United States should do about it. Versions of the first two comments were originally posted to a private listserv and are reprinted here with permission:
F. Gregory Gause III:
that it is way early, and we have to see how things develop, but let's assume
that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the clerical elite get away with the power grab.
What does Washington do? Put the outreach to Iran on hold?
I'll start with a provocation: I think that the diplomatic outreach should continue as it started. It would be great if there were real democracy in Iran and the United States did not have to deal with the execrable incumbent president. But American interests here are not about Iranian domestic politics. They are about Iran's role in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Gulf, the Arab-Israeli arena, and the nuclear program.
I acknowledge that it would be much easier to come to some understanding on these issues with a different, more representative Iranian government. But it looks like we might not get that. So the United States might as well try to engage the incumbents in order to see if it can get some kind of deal on at least some of these issues that will help avoid a confrontation down the road.
America deals with all sorts of governments whose domestic arrangements are, to put it mildly, less than compatible with American ideals. (The Saudis are Exhibit A.) I think that's how to deal with Iran.
F. Gregory Gause III is professor of political science at the University of Vermont and author of Oil Monarchies: Domestic and Security Challenges in the Arab Gulf States.
As a former advocate of robust engagement with Iran, I will throw my two cents into the discussion suggested by Greg Gause, if somewhat hesitantly at this early stage of what is unfolding in Tehran.
I would have preferred to wait to see the full extent of the evidence (or lack thereof) concerning what appears to be a relatively more determined and forceful power grab in Tehran before doing so, but what real harm is there in airing some of my concerns -- concerns that incline me toward an admittedly rather tentative conclusion at variance with that of my friend Greg Gause?
In order to have an effective dialogue, the other party must have a certain measure of credibility. One must be able to trust that such a dialogue is being conducted in reasonably good faith, not just a far less promising "going through the motions" affair. If we have witnessed an unprecedented, bare-knuckled power grab overseen by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, what does that tell us about his inclinations about meaningful compromise on the nuclear issue?
In Iran, there always has been, of course, some separation between domestic and foreign affairs, as with many largely authoritarian governments. Yet, it could be that Khamenei is considerably more hard-line on the nuclear issue than was previously thought. I realize that his motivations for engaging in what many say now has been unusually interventionist behavior to keep Ahmadinejad in office almost certainly would have been domestic, but can we exclude the possibility that the nuclear account played into this as well -- or other issues that could well come up in a more generalized dialogue with Iran?
As a result, I question the prudence of simply plowing ahead on engagement as if nothing has changed the potential state of play between Tehran and Washington (if our worst fears pan out about what has happened in Iran). One reason, albeit certainly not the only one, that I have been a strong advocate of dialogue is to avert an Israeli attack on Iran. Because of that factor alone, many readers might be unmoved by what I've tapped out above.
However, whereas I had no qualms about engagement before -- even had Ahmadinejad been largely legitimately elected -- I now do have a measure of hesitation (pending, of course, a full accounting of what has transpired concerning the election). Unless the shock in so many quarters over the election's outcome turns out to be largely the result of wishful thinking on the part of those who yearned to be rid of an Ahmadinejad presidency (me included), I do not believe the equation remains necessarily unchanged regarding engagement.
Should the worst interpretation of the election and its aftermath turn out to be true, even I might conclude in time that those adverse developments are still outweighed by the need for engagement. At the moment, though, I am experiencing some hesitation about simply waving aside what we may have witnessed in Iran and moving forward toward serious negotiations with such a government.
Wayne White is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute and was head of the State Department's Iraq intelligence team from 2003 to 2005.
Few doubt that the results presented by the interior minister are rigged. In fact, there are increasing questions as to whether the votes were ever even counted. If this were really a landslide in favor of Ahmadinejad, where are those 63 percent of the people right now? Shouldn't they be celebrating their victory on the streets?
Clearly, the anti-Ahmadinejad camp has been taken by surprise and is scrambling for a plan. Increasingly, given their failure to get Khamenei to intervene, their only option seems to be to directly challenge -- or threaten to challenge -- the supreme leader.
Here's where the powerful chairman of the Assembly of Experts, Mousavi supporter Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, comes in. Only this assembly has the formal authority to call for Khamenei's dismissal, and it is now widely assumed that Rafsanjani is quietly assessing whether he has the votes to do so or not.
It may be that the first steps toward challenging Khamenei have already been taken. After all, Mousavi went over the supreme leader's head with an open letter to the clergy in Qom. Rafsanjani clearly failed to win Khamenei's support in a reported meeting between the two men Friday, but the influential Ali Akbar Mohtashamipour, who heads the vote-monitoring committee for Mousavi and fellow candidate Mehdi Karroubi, has officially requested that the Guardian Council cancel the election and schedule a new vote with proper monitoring.
The implications for Washington's agenda, meanwhile, could be extensive. Although the United States is pursuing diplomacy with Iran in its own self-interest, electoral fraud (or the perception of fraud) complicates this strategy. And if political paralysis reigns in Iran, valuable time to address the nuclear issue through diplomacy will be lost. The White House's posture thus far is a constructive one -- while it cannot remain indifferent to irregularities in the elections, it must be careful never to get ahead of the Iranian people and the anti-Ahmadinejad candidates.
Finally, the Iranian-American community is deeply concerned about the situation. Sporadic protests have been taken place worldwide, including in Washington, D.C. Last week's campaigning -- with unprecedented debates, genuine grassroots mobilization, and major voter participation in the elections -- raised hopes that Iran was moving in a democratic direction, but the developments of the past 24 hours have dramatically changed the mood in the community.
Trita Parsi is founder and president of the National Iranian American Council and author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the U.S.
Joe Cirincione weighs in:
This is not the election result anyone but Iranian and Israeli hardliners hoped for. But all is not lost. While the Iranian leadership remains the same-at least for now-trends in the country and the region may still help President Obama's strategy to contain and engage Iran.
Post election, the Obama administration faces the same diplomatic challenges with Iran as before -- chief among them containing Iran's nuclear program. While Mir Hossein Mousavi, the reformist hope, might have been able to reverse the fierce nationalistic politics Mahmoud Ahmadinejad injected into the Iranian nuclear issue, the ultimate arbitrator of Iran's policy is neither man, but the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
As Carnegie Endowment scholar Karim Sadjadpour notes, "We should be clear about what we're dealing with. Just as we deal with Assad's Syria and Mubarak's Egypt, we now have to deal with Khamanei's Iran."
Despite the unfortunate result, the process of engagement must continue and the illusion of quick military or coercive options rejected. We do not negotiate with countries as a reward, but as a normal part of statecraft. The new challenge is to balance support for reformist and democratic movements in Iran with strategic diplomacy with Iran's leaders.
Senior administration officials struck the right chords with their comments over the weekend. "The administration will deal with the situation we have, not what we wish it to be," said one senior official. The task remains the same -- we must engage Iran in order to contain its nuclear program and channel its regional ambitions.
Obama's pragmatic approach should follow three simultaneous tracks: bilateral and multilateral talks over regional issues of common concern (Iraq and Afghanistan, chief among them); formal P5+1 talks with the other Security Council members and Iran on the nuclear program; and bilateral discussions on the broader US-Iranian relationship.
Contrary to what critics may argue, this does not imply caving in or giving away the store. This is hard-headed strategic diplomacy that has worked in the past to convince other countries to end nuclear. There are three developments that offer some promise that such an approach could succeed with Iran.
First, the election has exposed deep fissures in Iranian society and deep distrust of the ruling regime. Despite their triumphalist rhetoric, Iran's leaders must be troubled by the growing opposition to their dictatorial rule. The BBC reports that the situation inside Iran "is becoming unpredictable and potentially explosive." There is no telling where this could lead. Even if the protests subside, pragmatists among the elite may now push for greater accommodation with the West -- including compromise on the nuclear program -- in order to open trade and relieve the national economic distress that fueled Mousavi's unlikely rise.
Second, the continued pursuit of nuclear weapon capability carries risks for Iran. An Israeli military strike is one, but more ultimately menacing may be the reaction of Iran's Muslim neighbors. In the past three years, over a dozen Middle Eastern states have suddenly expressed interest in their own civilian nuclear programs, including Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This is not about reducing their carbon footprint, it is a hedge against Iran. Iran's leaders have an interest in ending this nascent nuclear arms race before it is faced with multiple, nuclear-armed adversaries.
Third, Obama's Cairo speech demonstrated the renewed appeal of American ideals and began to rebuild ties to the Muslim world damaged by the brutal and unnecessary invasion of Iraq. Obama can back up his words with deeds through bold cuts in U.S. and Russian arsenals to show that the is serious about the global elimination of nuclear weapons, with serious efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with support for the democratic aspirations of all Muslim people, and with the continued withdrawal from Iraq and new campaigns against violent extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan that do not rely primarily on military attacks. If he can take these steps, Obama could undercut the appeal of Ahmadinejad's brand of anti-Americanism in the greater Middle East.
The patience and balance that Obama has show thus far in his Iran approach must continue. There was never any indication that the president thought this was going to be quick or easy. The Iranian nuclear program built up a fierce momentum in recent years thanks to Bush's bungled efforts to overthrow the regime. It will take some years to slow and reverse this deadly direction.
Joseph Cirincione is President of Ploughshares Fund and author of Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons.
UPDATE: FP's David Rothkopf weighs in. "Since governments rather than general populations control nuclear programs, shouldn't the recent events give us reason to reconsider our recent drift toward acceptance of Iran's nuclear aspirations?," he asks.
Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Gary Sick, the dean of U.S. Iran experts, cuts to the heart of the matter:
The Iranian opposition, which includes some very powerful individuals and institutions, has an agonizing decision to make. If they are intimidated and silenced by the show of force (as they have been in the past), they will lose all credibility in the future with even their most devoted followers. But if they choose to confront their ruthless colleagues forcefully, not only is it likely to be messy but it could risk running out of control and potentially bring down the entire existing power structure, of which they are participants and beneficiaries.
He goes on:
In their own paranoia and hunger for power, the leaders of Iran have insulted their own fellow revolutionaries who have come to have second thoughts about absolute rule and the costs of repression, and they may have alienated an entire generation of future Iranian leaders. At the same time, they have provided an invaluable gift to their worst enemies abroad.
However this turns out, it is a historic turning point in the 30-year history of Iran’s Islamic revolution. Iranians have never forgotten the external political intervention that thwarted their democratic aspirations in 1953. How will they remember this day?
By the way, you can also follow someone claiming to be Mousavi's Twitter feed here. His latest post reads "Dear Iranian People, Mousavi has not left you alone, he has been put under house arrest by Ministry of Intelligence." No word from any media on whether this is true or not.
There's also a link to an English translation of Mousavi's letter to the Iranian people. It begins:
The reported results of the 10th Iranians residential [sic] Election are appalling. The people who witnessed the mixture of votes in long lineups know who they have voted for and observe the wizardry of I.R.I.B (State run TV and Radio) and election officials. Now more than ever before they want to know how and by which officials this game plan has been designed. I object fully to the current procedures and obvious and abundant deviations from law on the day of election and alert people to not surrender to this dangerous plot. Dishonesty and corruption of officials as we have seen will only result in weakening the pillars of the Islamic Republic of Iran and empowers lies and dictatorships.
I am obliged, due to my religious and national duties, to expose this dangerous plot and to explain its devastating effects on the future of Iran. I am concerned that the continuation of the current situation will transform all key members of this regime into fabulists in confrontation with the nation and seriously jeopardize them in this world and the next.
I advise all officials to halt this agenda at once before it is too late, return to the rule of law and protect the nation’s vote and know that deviation from law renders them illegitimate. They are aware better than anyone else that this country has been through a grand Islamic revolution and the least message of this revolution is that our nation is alert and will oppose anyone who aims to seize the power against the law.
See also Mousavi1388's Flickr account, which includes dozens of photos of today's riots.
7:58 PM ET: NIAC reports: "Through Facebook we have received news that Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and Gholamhossein Karbaschi are under house arrest." The usual caveats for unconfirmed reports apply.
After a very exciting week, it appears increasingly likely that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will once again be Iran's president.
Mir Hossain Mousavi, the challenger, has been unyielding in declaring the official results a farce. He insists he's the winner. "I'm warning I will not surrender to this dangerous charade. The result of such performance by some officials will jeopardize the pillars of the Islamic Republic and will establish tyranny," he said, in a statement cited by Reuters.
But just a few thousand of Mousavi's supporters defied government orders and protested in Tehran Saturday. Security forces sent them packing and threatened arrests. Meanwhile, Mousavi's press conference was mysteriously canceled, and there are unconfirmed reports that he was told in no uncertain terms to concede defeat.
And here's where "anyone but Ahmadinejad" probably isn't enough. People may be willing to form a human chain in the streets and wear green when such activities are sanctioned by the regime in the context of an election campaign. But are any but Mousavi's most ardent supporters willing to risk arrest, or even death, to see him elected? I tend to doubt it. The man just isn't that inspiring.
This is Iran, of course, and therefore anything could happen. According to some reports, Mousavi has called on his supporters to rally Saturday evening. But my gut tells me that it's game over.
As Rand's Alireza Nader put it, "The power of the traditional ruling elite -- men such as Ayatollah Rafsanjani -- has been effectively challenged by Ahmadinejad and his supporters, including top-ranking and fundamentalist members of the Revolutionary Guards."
This was hardball, and Ahmadinejad and Khamenei [appear to have] won.
As for the Obama administration's efforts to engage Iran, this is a huge setback. Because now, the U.S. will be dealing with a government that just stole an election, and used violence and threats of violence to enforce the results it wanted. Or, if the opposition does mobilize, there could be months of paralysis while the nuclear clock keeps ticking.
UPDATE: Several Iran hands emailed to say that I'm calling this way too early. As one of them put it, "Remember we haven't heard [from] Rafsanjani at all yet, or Khatami."
Of course, I'm not 100 percent sure that it's over. But the early signs don't look good for the Mousavi camp. Why weren't they able to put more people into the streets?
Turnout is "extraordinarily high" in Iran, Robert Worth is reporting for the New York Times:
Polls were originally due to close at 6 p.m. (9:30 a.m. in New York), but voting was extended for at least two hours due to the strong turnout. Initial results are not expected until 12 hours after the polls close.
According to Iran's interior minister, more than 70 percent of eligible Iranians may have voted. "The reports received from all over the country show that people's presence at the polling stations has been high-spirited and indescribable," he said. (More on the turnout story here.)
The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, also voted Friday morning. He seemed only vaguely up to speed on the election fever sweeping the country in recent days. "I am hearing about a vast participation of people, and I hear there are even gatherings at night," Khamenei said. "This shows the people's awareness."
Here's Khamenei casting his ballot:
And here's incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad showing a purple finger:
And finally, the challenger, Mir Hossain Mousavi, with his wife, who has been a huge player in the campaign:
The Mousavi camp is already complaining of irregularities, including a shutdown of text messaging. "Presently they have prevented some of our representatives from being present at polling stations and they do not let us monitor (the vote)," Mousavi was cited as saying. "We expect that officials would solve this problem as soon as possible."
We'll keep you posted.
UPDATE: Reformist former PM Mohammad Khatami is already declaring victory for Mousavi:
All indications suggest that Mousavi has won,'' he told reporters.
2:54 PM ET: Now both sides are predicting victory:
Sadegh Kharazi, a senior backer of former Prime Minister Mirhossein Mousavi, said surveys made by reformers showed that Mousavi was getting about 58-60 percent of the votes.
But an Ahmadinejad representative, Ali Asghar Zarei, said the incumbent was ahead with about the same level of support, the semi-official Mehr News Agency reported.
Photos: AFP/Getty Images
I believe the only appropriate word for this is "chutzpah":
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Wednesday accused his election rivals of adopting smear tactics used by Germany's dictator Adolf Hitler and said they could face jail for insulting him. [...]
"No one has the right to insult the president, and they did it. And this is a crime. The person who insulted the president should be punished, and the punishment is jail," he told supporters outside Tehran's Sharif University.
"Such insults and accusations against the government are a return to Hitler's methods, to repeat lies and accusations ... until everyone believes those lies," Ahmadinejad said.
"Ahmadi bye-bye." That's one of the chants that supporters of Iranian presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi were yelling Monday when they decked out in green and formed a stunning human chain along a 12-mile-long arterial road that runs through Tehran.
Many Iranians are fed up with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- the man who has presided over a crumbling economy and damaged Iran's international standing. They head to the polls Friday to select one of four candidates, and if the outcome is "Ahmadi bye-bye," the most-likely new president would be Mousavi, a relative unknown until recently.
FP has an Iran package to keep you in the know. Check it out:
Iran's Presidential Wannabes: Meet the four men vying to lead the Islamic Republic and learn where they stand on foreign policy and domestic politics.
Iran's Potato Revolution: Former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi has spent the past two decades out of the public eye, pursuing his interests in architecture and painting. Now he's the man most likely to dethrone Ahmadinejad.
Who's Winning Iran's Google War? To understand Iranian politics, ask a search engine. Over the past 90 days, Farsi-language Google searches for "Mousavi" have increased 1,300 percent.
Iran's New Revolution: Candidate Mousavi may have less charisma than Michael Dukakis, but the rock star has Iranian youth screaming.
Ahmadi Bye-Bye in Iran? A photo review of the best moments from Iran's wild campaign.
Photo: Majid/Getty Images
Late last week, I suggested that Mir Hossein Mousavi, the Iranian reformist presidential candidate, faces a tough uphill battle against incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Today, a Terror Free Tomorrow/New America Foundation poll seems to confirm that analysis, putting Ahmadinejad ahead of Mousavi by as much as 20 percent.
Lisa Margonelli and Andrew Sullivan both picked up on the data, with Margonelli predicting "a potential win for the President," but one portion of the study hints that Mousavi, not Ahmadinejad, might actually enjoy the upper hand in this race:
[Eighty-nine] percent of Iranians say that they will cast a vote in the upcoming Presidential elections."
So what? Well, according to Mousavi's campaign manager, the chances of an Ahmadinejad loss reach 65 percent in models where at least 70 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.
If both the TFT/NAF poll and Mousavi's campaign are correct, the opposition candidate could put a major dent in Ahmadinejad's reelection plans.
So, it turns out that Lebanon's ruling pro-Western coalition managed to hang on to power, defeating a rival coalition that includes Hezbollah.
The editors over at HuffPo appear to credit this development to Obama's Thursday speech, blaring these headlines:
I hate to burst the bubble, but there's simply no evidence yet that Obama had any impact on the outcome. As Paul Salem explained Friday for FP, there were plenty of indications - such as the fact that it only ran 11 candidates -- that Hezbollah didn't really want to win and give up its cozy seat in the opposition. And further, it was Hezbollah's coalition partner, the mostly Christian Free Patriotic Movement, that seems to have underperformed expectations. In any case, the AP story on HuffPo flatly declares, "Obama's speech did not resonate in the election campaign."
Nor should we breathe a sigh of relief just yet. Now comes the ugly business of negotiating ministries, and it's likely that Hezbollah (whose power is measured in more than just parliamentary seats) will again demand a veto in a cabinet of "national unity" -- to the extent that such a thing exists in fractured Lebanon. It could be months of agonizing negotiations before a new government is formed.
The good news, of course, is that the Hezbollah-FPM coalition didn't win, which could have led to ugly recriminations, or worse, if the ruling Sunni-Druze-Christian alliance didn't accept the results. But I don't think we can chalk these results up to any "Obama effect" just yet, if ever.
UPDATE: Elias Muhanna weighs in:
Far more decisive, in my opinion, seems to have been: (1) the high turnout of Sunnis in Zahle — many of whom came from abroad — coupled with a low turnout of Christians; (2) strong feelings of antipathy towards Hizbullah by the Christians of Beirut who voted decisively for March 14th’s list in the district of Achrafieh; (3) some rare rhetorical blunders by Nasrallah in the past couple of weeks, calling the events of May 7th “a glorious day” for the resistance.
JOSEPH BARRAK/AFP/Getty Images
When Dutch right-wing politician Geert Wilders was charged with using hate speech (including comparing the Koran to Mein Kampf), some feared that the publicity surrounding the trial would help rather than hurt his party and reputation. My FP colleague Josh Keating has already twice documented how Wilders and his party have gained more mainstream support, even in the United States. Now, Dutch voters have affirmed those fears:
The Dutch anti-immigrant maverick, Geert Wilders, scored his biggest victory yesterday, seizing 15% and second place in European elections for the Netherlands, according to exit polls last night.The bleached blond populist, barred from Britain and facing prosecution at home for hate speech, led his Freedom party to win four of the Netherlands' 25 seats in the European parliament at the first attempt, pushing the Labour party of the coalition government's finance minister, Wouter Bos, into third place.
It should be an interesting meeting when his party's representatives try to suggest EU policy:
Wilders wants the European parliament abolished, Bulgaria and Romania kicked out of the EU, the mass deportation of immigrants from the Netherlands, and a minimum say for Brussels over Dutch policy.
Given that this will be the first time Wilders's party has won European seats, it will be interesting to see if some new version of the ITS party (a nationalist EU parliament party that briefly existed during 2007) could be could be reconstituted after the results are announced on Sunday.
MARCEL ANTONISSE/AFP/Getty Images
The AP's recent report about Iranian reformist presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi paints an optimistic picture, describing enthusiastic voter outreach campaigns and other exercises of political freedom the country isn't typically known for. This is all very promising—both for Iran and the United States. But the report misses some fundamental points.
Roughly 46 million Iranians will be eligible to vote on June 12. According to Mousavi's campaign manager, the chances of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad losing the race shoot up to 65 percent if voter turnout exceeds 32 million. By contrast, he says, the odds of a regime change plummet to just 35 percent if voter turnout is limited to 27 million or fewer. Might this election hinge on five million voters?
If his calculations are correct, a best-case scenario for Mousavi would have to count on 70 percent of eligible voters showing up to the polls. That's an astronomical number, considering how badly turnout in recent years has been slumping.
Still, keep your eyes out for a surprise—this presidential race is fast becoming one of the most energetic and competitive in the nation's history.
Think you know something about Iran? Think again, says Fareed Zakaria in the latest issue of Newsweek:
In an interview last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the Iranian regime as "a messianic, apocalyptic cult." In fact, Iran has tended to behave in a shrewd, calculating manner, advancing its interests when possible, retreating when necessary ... The regime jails opponents, closes down magazines and tolerates few challenges to its authority. But neither is it a monolithic dictatorship.
Zakaria's observations were upheld yesterday as supporters of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad publicly (and peacefully) confronted those of his rival, moderate Mir Hossein Musavi. Musavi is challenging Ahmedinejad in the current round of presidential elections in Iran.
It's a little premature to make sweeping generalizations, but the fact that this demonstration of political freedom occurred at all suggests the United States deeply misunderstands its rival. Just as it's becoming clear now that Ahmedinejad doesn't represent "a monolithic dictatorship," it should be equally evident that vilifying Iran as an undemocratic, irrational power is neither accurate nor helpful.
(Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan)
Mohammad Khatami isn't running for president of Iran, but the former president still seems to be constantly in the headlines these days. President Ahmadinejad recently attacked his predecessor for bringing shame on the country. RFE/RL reports:
The president told Iran's state radio that Khatami’s 2005 visit to France was one of the saddest days of his life, because Khatami "had to climb several flights of stairs" in the Elysee Palace to reach Jacque Chirac, the then French president.
Ahmadinejad said he found it “insulting” to Iranians.
Oh snap! But Khatami wasn't just going to take that of course:
Khatami fought back, writing in the "Hayate Nou" daily, saying that the real insult was thrown during Ahmadinejad’s trip to Columbia University in New York in 2007, when Ahmadinejad was introduced to the audience as a “cruel and petty dictator.”
As for the Elysee Palace incident, Khatami wrote that actually Chirac had descended a few flights of stairs -- breaching official protocol -- to greet him.
Between this and last week's Azeri-gate, it certainly seems as if Ahmadinejad's supporters are trying their best to keep the focus on Khatami rather than the opposition who's actually running, Mir Hussein Moussavi. It does make sense that it would be easier to attack Khatami, who is in fact quite popular and well-known in the West, as a sell-out of the Iranian revolution that Moussavi, who was a favorite of Ayatollah Khomeini and in many ways on the conservative end of the Iranian political spectrum.
Khatami certainly has a right to defend himself from Ahmadinejad's petty attacks, but the best way for him to help the candidate he supports (who does seem to be gaining some momentum) may be to lay low for a bit.
Back in 2007, I wrote a post noting a video of Mohammed Khatami shaking hands with female supporters that had gotten the former Iranian president in some hot water. The post was titled "Mohammed Khatami's macaca moment," but Khatami's latest viral video sensation is actually more like George Allen's infamous racial slur.
In the video, which is making the round of the Iranian blogosphere, Khatami tells an insulting joke about Azeris. (I'm fairly sure it's the video above but Farsi speakers should correct me if I'm wrong.) This had lead to public protests in several cities by Iran's sizeable Azeri community. It's quite possible that the video was leaked in order to discredit Khatami's reformist ally Mir Hossein Musavi in the upcoming presidential election.
RFE/RL's Iran Election Diary Blog provides a translation, though I think it probably loses something from the original:
“There was a preacher from Ardabil whose expertise was telling the story of how Fatemeh Zahra [the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad] got married," he says. "[The preacher] said that the night she became a bride, she was being taken to the house [of the groom] and the Prophet was walking in front of her, while Imam Hassan and Imam Hossein [both the sons of Fatemeh Zahra] were walking with her.”
This is way over my head but the implication, apparently, is that Azeris are slow. In any case, Iran's reformists may want to keep cellphone cameras away from Khatami for the next three weeks.
The same blog also has a collection of (funnier) Iranian election jokes, such as the best reason to vote for Musavi over Ahmadinejad:
"He's made anti-Israeli and anti- American comments at international venues but nobody walked out."
Update: Some further explanation from commenter Nemesida below.
Navjot Sidhu (in pink turban), Indian cricketer-turned-politician and member of Parliament for the right-wing nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, flexes his muscles with bodybuilders during his campaign in the northern Indian city of Amritsar on April 26.
India is currently holding the world's biggest election ever. It involves 714 million eligible voters, more than 7,000 candidates at last count, 1,055 political parties, 830,000 polling stations, and 1,368,430 electronic voting machines. The parliamentary general elections are being held in five stages -- April 16, 23, and 30, and May 7 and 13. The results will be announced May 16. (Learn more about the elections in FP's recent photo essay: "The World's Biggest Election.")
Sidhu is a colorful character on India's political scene. The former cricketer won a seat in Parliament in 2004, resigned in 2006 after being convicted for manslaughter in connection with a 1988 parking dispute, and won back his seat in 2007 after the Supreme Court stayed the conviction. Unfortunately, criminality among Indian politicians isn't especially unique. Of the 543 politicians returned to the lower house of Parliament in the last election in 2004, 128 had charges against them, including 84 with murder charges.
NARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images
A man urinates on April 25, 2009 in the toilets of the Sodoma bar in central Reykjavik where photographs of the former bankers who left their country after the financial crash have been stuck on the urinals. AFP PHOTO OLIVIER MORIN.
Someday very soon, a graduate student is going to have a field day with the gender dynamics of Iceland's transfer-of-power.
Brazil's Lula may blame "white people with blue eyes" for the global financial crisis, but in financially-crippled Iceland, many women in finance and government feel they have to clean up the mess left by the country's boys-club power elite. One former government official who, according to Der Spiegel, runs Iceland's only still-successful investment firm, put it this way:
"The crisis is man-made," claims banker Halla, 40, who like all Icelanders, is only addressed by her first name. "It's always the same guys," she says. "Ninety-nine percent went to the same school, they drive the same cars, they wear the same suits and they have the same attitudes. They got us into this situation -- and they had a lot of fun doing it," she says. Halla criticizes a system that focuses "aggressively and indiscriminately" on the short-term maximization of profits, without any regard for losses, that is oriented on short-lived market prices and lucrative bonus payments. "It's typical male behavior," says Halla, who compares it to a "penis competition" -- who has the biggest?
Now Iceland's women are rising to the top ranks -- in politics, too -- and they want to make everything better. Writer Hallgrimur Helgason says the new star is Johanna Sigurdardottir, 66, a Social Democrat, who had previously been known to most Icelanders as an honest and unimposing politician. "My time will come," she once railed at her opponents angrily almost 20 years ago.
Halla credits her success to bringing "female values into the financial world."
Sigurdardottir, currently prime minister in an appointed caretaker government, is widely expected to win big in an early election this weekend. She is not only her country's first female prime minister, but the world's first openly-lesbian head of state.
Perhaps Iceland too -- as The Onion brilliantly summed up the last U.S. election -- is now "finally shitty enough to make social progress."
Most commentators on yesterday's elections in South Africa have used words like "landmark" or "historic" to describe the vote. And yes, perhas as the fourth democratic vote in the country's post-apartheid history, the elections still deserve the title.
But the big news that the ANC's lead is down slightly from previous years (from 70 percent to about 65 percent) should not be read too carefully as a change. As Raenette Taljaard points out in her Think Again: South Africa on FP, the near-one-party state that has entrenched the ruling African National Congress (ANC) shows no signs of fading. In fact, if anything, those structure of power and patronage are more entrenched than ever.
What is perhaps more interesting is the boost in voter turnout -- at a high 77 percent. The speaks not just to an enthusiasm for democracy. It also indicates just how polarizing this election became. Jacob Zuma, now almost assured to be President, drives crowds towards him and way from him, on the one side eager for Zuma's promises to speed the slow pace of change for the impoverished majority, and on the other fearful that his impudence and possible corruption could see South Africa look a bit too much like other, less proserpous, African neighbors.
In short, South Africa is in for a telling few years. If Zuma doesn't live up the high expectations of the working class voters who support him, he may resort to less savory techniques of patronage to stay in power. Then again, if he's able to improve the lives of the average citizen even a bit, it will be welcome.
ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images
With Indian elections beginning tomorrow, the pressure seems to be getting to a few candidates from the Hindu nationalist BJP party. The BBC reports that one candidate even addressed a rally for the opposing Congress Party by accident:
[Karnataka State Home Minister VS] Acharya had been on his way to meet a fellow BJP activist when he noticed the rally.
The Times of India said the Congress supporters extended the courtesy expected to be afforded to a minister and offered him a seat.
It said when he rose to speak Mr Acharya was still unaware of his surroundings and began by praising the achievements of the BJP government in Karnataka.
Acharya beat a hasty retreat aftrer realizing his mistake. This comes on the heels of another BJP calling for a demonstration to repeal a law that didn't exist.
Gathering over 50 percent of the vote, Moldova's Communist Party (PCRM) won a landslide victory in the parliamentary elections on Sunday. Interestingly, until this election Moldova was the only state in Europe where clinging to the Communist brand remained politically expedient. In fact, since Moldova declared independence in 1990 the PCRM has never relinquished power. However, today's violent protests have shown that over the last decade a socio-political chasm between young and urban voters and the elderly and rural has split Moldovan society.
It's important to note that the PCRM's platform, based on such Marxist notions as encouraging entrepreneurship, attracting foreign direct investment, and protecting human rights, isn't really all that Communist. Unlike other nominally Communist parties, the PCRM doesn't even pay lip service to Communist principles and openly advocates seeking closer socio-economic relations with Europe. Their key difference with the Liberals is that the Communists are wary of reunification with Romania, a country with which Moldova shares historical and linguistic ties
The wide margin of victory provides the PCRM with a clear mandate to pursue its proposed policy of closer integration with Europe, but as Moldova expert Elizabeth Anderson pointed out, its many years in power has left the Communist Party over-institutionalized and corrupt. The next Moldovan president will have to tread lightly, institute reforms within his own party, and try to build coalitions with the minority parties in parliament. Otherwise, Moldova risks falling into the same kind of vicious cycle that neighboring Ukraine has experienced since the Orange revolution in 2004.
The financial crisis seems to be boosting extreme nationalist sentiment in Ukraine:
On March 15, voters in the Ternopil region of western Ukraine elected a new regional assembly. This was an Orange Revolution bastion, a region that has long sought to embrace the West and shun Russia.
But it is also has Ukraine's highest unemployment. In a crowded field, the previously little-known Freedom Party won 50 of the regional assembly's 120 seats as voters embraced its hard Right leader, Oleg Tyagnibok, who has urged the expulsion of all Jews and Russians from Ukraine.
"The problem is less the popularity of the nationalists than the universal disappointment with mainstream parties," said Viktor Chumak, a political scientist in Ukraine's capital, Kiev. "Voters are sympathising with radicals more and more as a result of the crisis."
I'm actually surprised we haven't seen more of this around the world yet.
Last week, I blogged that Andrei Lugovoi, prime suspect in the Alexander Litvinenko murder, is running for mayor of Sochi, the Black Sea resort town that will host the 2014 Winter Olympics. [Update: Looks like Lugovoi's out.] But Lugovoi's only one of the 25 fascinating characters (including some Passport favorites) running in what's shaping up to be one of the world's more interesting political contests.
Liberal opposition leader and political sex symbol Boris Nemtsov is running, and got ammonia thrown at him by pro-Kremlin hooligans a few days ago. Ex-KGB oligarch Alexander Lebedev is in the running, as is freemason lodge leader Andrei Bogdanov, who we last met when he was waging a high-profile beef with far-right leader (and Lugovoi's boss) Vladimir Zhirinovsky during his highly suspicious presidential run.
But there's more! Former Bolshoi ballerina Anastasia Volochkova is running, as is porn star Yelena Berkova, and local wrestling promoter Stanislav Koretsky. Then, of course, there's the guy who will most likely win, Anatoly Pakhomov from Vladimir Putin's United Russia Party.
A lot of these candidates have fairly minimal connections to Sochi, which doesn't seem to be a huge problem in Russian politics. Though the Communist Party's candidate did gripe about Lugovoi, "Maybe he vacationed here once.”
So why does every egomaniac in Russia want to be mayor of Sochi all of a sudden? First, the upcoming Olympics makes the race a perfect opportunity for self-promotion. Second, for the slightly more serious candidates, a recent upset in Murmansk, where a United Russia incumbent was defeated in a mayor's race by an independent candidate, has the Russian opposition sensing blood in the water.
Has the financial crisis broken United Russia's seemingly invincible grip on Russia's regional politics? Let the games begin.
Photos: Getty Images
As new president elect Mauricio Funes celebrates his victory in El Salvador, the world will be watching for answers to the inevitable question: has another Latin America country just turned to the Left?
The immediate answer is: yes. The victorious FMLN party claims deep Marxist roots -- having emerged out of an alliance of rebel groups from El Salvador's bloody civil war in 1992. FMLN appealed to voters who are fed up with poverty, crime, and the inertia of a decades-in-power ruling ARENA party. The party fell hard for Obamamania to get its point of "change" across.
But just how radical is the FMLN? That's a much more interesting thing to ponder. Funes himself is a moderate, but others in the party are less so. During the campaign, the now president elect stressed his business friendliness, and intention to keep up a strong U.S. relationship. But CATO analyst Carlos Hidalgo is still concerned. In a podcast last week, he said that high-ranking FMLN party members (including the Vice President) were intent on dismantling market reforms, dropping out of the Central American Free Trade Agreement, and emulating Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution. That could undo gains including the near-halfing of poverty since the end of the war, Hidalgo worries.
Watch and wait, it seems. For now, as Bart Beeson writes for FP, the victory is exactly that for a country long troubled by civil conflict. Everyone seems to agree no matter how far left the FMLN may be, it's better that they've taken their revolution out of the jungle and into voting booths.
As Antiguan voters headed to the polls today, the main topic of debate was who, exactly, let billionaire financier and alleged Ponzi-scheme operator Allen Stanford become the driving force behind the country's economy:
The billionaire is one of the island's most prominent citizens and its largest private employer. Hundreds of people work for his two restaurants, one newspaper, cricket grounds, a development company and a three-branch local bank as well as the headquarters of his Stanford International Bank.
Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer, whose United Progressive Party is seeking to retain its majority of 17 parliamentary seats, has said his opponents sought to "literally give away Antigua and Barbuda to Allen Stanford" when the financier brought his offshore bank here from Montserrat in 1990.
Spencer's opponent, Lester Bird, a close Stanford ally, denies the claim — although his Antigua Labor Party was in power at the time.
Tom Shaw/Getty Images
Two days after Venezuela celebrated the passage of a referendum to remove term limits, the country still seems to be shaking off a hangover. Analysts the world over are mulling over the Venezuela's rising inflation, alarming debt burden, and perceived fiscal shortfall as oil prices fall to dismal lows.
Putting it more frankly, a former Venezuelan central bank official says the country is headed for certain stagflation. "A model based on the state entrepreneurial role is being depleted," he told El Universal. Rough words for a President who has nationalized the oil industry, among others, and may soon do the same in banking.
But if the markets say anything, it is that Chavez will simply have to start reigning in his popular but extensive spending -- something he'd avoided doing until the votes were cast. The country's currency rose on precisely those hopes yesterday.
From the looks of it, Hugo Chavez did indeed enjoy the hell-of-a party in Caracas on Sunday night, celebrating his big win. Good thing. One of the catchier slogans of the campaign, "Oh, ah, Chavez no se va!", is Venezuela's reality: Chavez isn't going anywhere. Is he sure it's a job he wants anymore? La recesion, tampoco, no se va...
Photo: THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images
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