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Iran Election Filled with Surprises


Voting in Iran's election
The world of Iranian politics is often murky and can surprise even seasoned observers. No where is this more evident than in the outcome of Friday's election, in which a nationally obscure political figure came out of nowhere to take second place and a spot in the runoff.

Former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was the clear favorite in the election, even if he did not poll enough votes to win outright in the first round. But no one expected the strong finish of Tehran Mayor Mahmood Ahmadinejad, whose poll numbers were only in single digits before the election.

The third-place finisher, reformist cleric Mehdi Karroubi, claimed there had been fraud and vote buying - an unheard-of charge in Iranian politics - but offered no public proof.

Karim Sadjapour is a Tehran-based political analyst with the International Crisis Group, which monitors political developments around the world. He says it appears that the conservative political establishment made a decision late in the campaign to support Mr. Ahmadinejad, perhaps the most hardline of the seven presidential candidates permitted to compete by Iran's unelected Guardian Council of hardline clerics.

"It is one thing for Tehranis to know him," he said. "But why would someone in Esfahan, or Yaz, or Shiraz or Mashaad, these cities, why would they have a particular affinity for the mayor of Tehran? I think it is quite curious. So, I think, it is obvious that there was a collective decision on the part of the conservative establishment to throw their weight behind one particular candidate. And they have various organs, through which they can do that."

Mohammad Atrianfar is publisher of the newspaper, Shargh, and a senior political advisor to Mr. Rafsanjani. In an interview, he said the basiijs, or Mobilization Resistance Force - a volunteer paramilitary militia under the Revolutionary Guards - was called upon to vote for Mr. Ahmadinejad and get others to do so.

Some basiijs were used as guards at polling places, he says, where they could intimidate voters.

Mr. Sadjapour, of the International Crisis Group, says the Revolutionary Guards do not always vote as a bloc, noting that many of them voted for the outgoing reform-minded president, Mohammad Khatemi, in previous elections. But he thinks it was different this time.

"There was [were] a lot of statistics that showed three-quarters of the Revolutionary Guard voted for Khatami," he said. "So, to say that they are one monolithic organization dedicated to the conservative establishment is maybe lacking a bit of nuance. But, in this case, it does appear that they did throw their weight behind Mr. Ahmadinejad."

Mr. Atrianfar, the publisher, says, although the military is supposed to steer clear of politics, it has always had some role, but it has never been as prominent as this.

Mr. Sadjapour says the populist platforms by Mr. Ahmadinejad and Mr. Karroubi, the third-place finisher - both of whom had promised regular stipends, or payments to Iranians - also resonated more than the reformists' messages of democracy. The main reform candidate, Mostafa Moin, came in fifth in the seven-man race.

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