Sadly, the past week’s events in Iran are far from unique. I’ve been on the frontlines of more than a few foreign presidential elections involving voter fraud—Serbia, Venezuela, Ukraine—and the telltale signs of widespread abuse are eerily familiar, which I’ll break out below.
I’ve also been involved in one election, in Ukraine in 2004, where such massive abuses led to new balloting. Those results seem a pretty powerful precedent, especially given the similar energy and enthusiasm residing with the challenger’s camp. I think Mir Hossein Mousavi would win a revote in a landslide, as Viktor Yushchenko did in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. After circumstances like what we have seen this week in Tehran, it is frequently very difficult, if not impossible for beleaguered incumbents to go back to the well more than once.
I think Mir Hossein Mousavi would win a revote in a landslide, as Viktor Yushchenko did in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution.
Even without the surge that comes when a campaign becomes a movement, Mousavi was already starting from a large base of voters. Let’s be clear: All of the evidence, statistical and otherwise, suggests very strongly to me that there was massive fraud in last Friday’s Iranian presidential election. Here’s why:
First and foremost, the widely circulated Washington Post poll of Iranian public opinion conducted between May 11 and May 20, which indicated a 2-to-1 lead for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad three weeks before the June 12 election, is most likely indicative of just the opposite. One can typically assume that any time an incumbent receives less than 50 percent—as Ahmadinejad did in this poll, with 34 percent of Iranians saying they planned to vote for him—the bulk of the undecided and undeclared voters are most likely opponents of the incumbent regime.
And indeed, in the case of this survey, 42 percent of the electorate refused to declare a choice. What’s more, the vast majority of those voters, at least 70 percent, indicated that they harbor reformist tendencies, rather than those that are subordinate to Ahmadinejad and his regime.
And with Mousavi’s election campaign surging in the three weeks after the widely disseminated poll was conducted, it almost is certain that the survey was indicative of real problems for Ahmadinejad, not a substantial margin of victory.
Other evidence suggests to me that real electoral fraud took place last week in Iran. First, the ballot count was too quick. It is simply impossible to count 39,165,191 ballots as quickly as they did. Additionally, the fact that results were released piecemeal, showing Ahmadinejad doing well in regions of the country where reformist candidates have previously carried support, indicates substantial irregularities within the ballot count.
I remember similar irregularities occurring in Serbia during the 1992 and 2000 presidential elections. In both cases, pre-election polls alleged that Slobodan Milosevic was carrying strongholds in regions that had traditionally supported the opposition. And on Election Day, results were released specifically to show that he had won by a landslide, when in fact he had not.
In 2000, the year voter fraud in Serbia was most seriously contested, I worked directly to oppose Milosevic’s candidacy. Public reaction to the fraudulent electoral practices in 2000 grew so strong that it resulted in the downfall of Milosevic’s regime in the Bulldozer Revolution on October 5, 2000.
In Venezuela, there was clear polling to show that Hugo Chavez had lost the 2004 referendum to affect a recall, as there was likely massive electoral manipulation centrally to achieve the opposite result. This is very similar to what appears to have happened in Iran, where results show a Mousavi landslide and the Ministry of Interior appeared to take action quickly to offer a contrary result.
In Ukraine, Venezuela, and Serbia, authorities were able to monitor accounts of the flow of the ballots, both during the polling process and as the count was proceeding. From a comparative standpoint, to assume that the Iranian authorities were not perfectly aware of what was going on, in terms of irregularities in their ballot count, would be foolish.
There are clear policy implications from this. While Mousavi and Ahmadinejad may well take different positions, it is absolutely the case that their support bases dictate that they would have to pursue different policies as president, just as opposition candidates Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine and Vojislav Koštunica of Serbia did following their upset victories.
Their experience underscores the central point: that pre-election polling and exit polls are a critical tool of democracy. There were no exit polls in Iran, so there is no accurate polling. Where there are exit polls, as there were in Kenya during the election crisis of 2007, free and fair results can be obtained. As such, America needs to promote not only democratic values but the use of democratic techniques, to avoid situations like the probable corrupting of the process in Iran.
Douglas E. Schoen is a founding partner for Penn, Schoen & Berland and a co-inventor of overnight polling. He is the author of The Power of the Vote: Electing Presidents, Overthrowing Dictators, and Promoting Democracy Around the World and Declaring Independence: The Beginning of the End of the Two-Party System.