Was it a backlash by Iran’s devoutly Muslim poor against a corrupt elite? Or was it a massive fraud perpetrated on the people by the hardline clerics? Perhaps it was a bit of both. Whatever the case, the margin of victory for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the second round of Iran’s presidential election, on Friday June 24th, was striking. Mr Ahmadinejad, the mayor of the capital, Tehran, and a hardline religious conservative, garnered around 62% of the vote, despite having gone almost unnoticed in the field of seven candidates who had contested the first round of voting, a week earlier.
It was a crushing defeat for Mr Ahmadinejad’s opponent, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a powerful former president (1989-97) and former speaker of the Iranian parliament—who had seemed the favourite from the moment he decided to run. Mr Rafsanjani, a pragmatic conservative who had restyled himself as a cautious reformer, had been expected to face an out-and-out moderniser in the run-off. Thus it had looked possible, whatever the outcome, that Iran’s modest economic and social reforms of recent years would continue if not accelerate, and that its relations with the West—America, especially—might improve. Immediately after the first round, in which Mr Ahmadinejad came second and thus won a place in the run-off, it looked possible that reformists’ votes would transfer to Mr Rafsanjani and guarantee his victory.
So what happened? At the end of the first round, one of the defeated reformists, Mehdi Karrubi, complained that the vote had been fixed. There were indeed some suspicious circumstances: for example, in South Khorasan province, home to many disgruntled Sunni Muslims, the official turnout was an improbable 95%; yet Mr Ahmadinejad, the candidate most associated with the assertive Shia Islamism of Iran’s clerical regime, won more than a third of the votes there. And while Friday’s second-round vote was still going on, Mr Rafsanjani’s aides were complaining of “massive irregularities”, accusing the Basij religious militia—in which Mr Ahmadinejad used to be an instructor—of intimidating voters to support their man.
However, whatever the extent of any vote-rigging, it seems unlikely that it was the only reason why Mr Rafsanjani did so badly. Conservative-minded Iranians, especially the devoutly Muslim poor, seem to have warmed to the austere Mr Ahmadinejad because of his modest lifestyle, his personal honesty and his reassuringly insular vision.
Mr Ahmadinejad presented himself as a committed follower of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution and of the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; and he pledged to put the interests of the poor at the top of his priorities. In this he seems successfully to have tapped popular resentment at the country’s elite, widely held to be enriching itself corruptly. The wheeler-dealing and allegedly highly wealthy Mr Rafsanjani is seen as the very embodiment of that elite. Whereas Mr Rafsanjani argued for improved relations with America and increased foreign investment in Iran, Mr Ahmadinejad insisted there was no need for any rapprochement with the “Great Satan”, as official Iranian demonology labels the superpower.