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07/16/09

Rules - What Rules? How Iran's Election Was Funded

By Majid Mohammadi, New York (Source: Mianeh)

 

Although Iran rejected communism along with capitalism in the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and despite the talk of theocratic democracy, last month's presidential election bore all the hallmarks of a totalitarian state where the incumbent secures re-election in a carefully-orchestrated process.

 

 

In the final weeks before the June 12 vote, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used his position as president to award the equivalent of 80 US dollars each to no fewer than five million poor people, most of them in rural areas. He also increased pensions for many retired civil servants. While this expenditure is estimated to have cost around 400 million dollars, it probably earned him a good number of votes in return.

 

The handout to the poor was over and above the funds he authorised as bonuses for other government workers, and the gold coins he distributed at hospitals in Tehran , according to Iranian newspaper reports in May. He also sent out cheques worth 50 dollars to university and seminary students.

 

According to some media sources, no less than five billion dollars was put aside for distribution in the run up to elections.

 

Another feature of Ahmadinejad's election campaign was the use of state-run media to promote his candidacy, unfairly, over those of his rivals. This was very evident in government run newspapers and websites such as Iran, Kayhan and Vatan-e Emruz, and in news agencies such as IRNA and the National Youth Organisation News Agency.

 

Similar control was exerted over the main radio and TV stations,

 

Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad supporters, allegedly including members of the Revolutionary Guards, hacked into websites supporting the other candidates.

 

Opposition media have alleged that members of the security forces as well as of paramilitary forces were sent along to the president's campaign rallies. They based on instructions - whose texts they published - in which government and security-service employees were told to attend, although the authorities denied that these documents were genuine.

 

State-run public arenas were used as campaign venues, and government-owned buses were laid on to ferry people there, with no suggestion of payment. The state reportedly paid for the president and his campaign team to fly around the country .

 

The only thing certain about Ahmadinejad's campaign spending during the elections is the total lack of transparency surrounding it. The president claimed he was not going to spend anything on campaign adverts, but that does not mean his supporters refrained from doing so. How much they spent, and even their identity, remains murky.

 

To be fair, this also applies to the other candidates including Mir Hossein Mousavi. Thus, even before the controversy over the count, voters were left wondering how fair the process really was, given the absence of information about campaign funds and their sources.

 

There were no signs of fundraising events, no websites set up to solicit donations, and no other obvious ways of offering financial support to any of the candidates.

 

During the Islamic Revolution and through the 1980s, people were ready to offer their time and expertise for free, but these days no one contributes to political campaigns in that way. Instead, everything is prearranged and carefully stage-managed. For instance, the management of polling stations was assigned to government employees who were paid for their work.

 

Sadly, Iranian elections these days are not so much about democracy, even theocratic democracy, as about special-interest groups doing deals behind closed doors. Businesses will back a particular candidate in the expectation of profiting from his election victory.

 

Tehran has have long criticised the close relationship between capital and political power in the West, yet the two are closely linked in Iran, too.

 

During a TV debate with the Ahmadinejad, opposition challenger Mousavi claimed that import and export duties on certain goods and services had been altered to benefit businesses that would then fund Ahmadinejad's campaign. Others alleged that assets including publicly-owned land and company shares were traded to business leaders and other key figures in return for their support.

 

The media are largely cowed into silence, and are well aware they cannot shine a light on electoral funding and related practices without fear of retribution.

 

There is no law obliging election candidates to make their sources of funding public, or limiting the size of donations. The state and those in power are a law unto themselves, and do not feel any compulsion to be accountable to the public, even during an election. Since they control the whole process, there is, of course, very little pressure on them to be more open.

 

About the author: Majid Mohammadi teaches humanities and sociology. He is the author of more than two dozen books on Iran and has a particular interest in political Islam, judicial reform, and social movements.

 

This article is an abridged and translated version of the full original text published on the Farsi pages of Mianeh, with editorial adjustments agreed with the writer made to provide clarity for English-language readers.

 

About Mianeh: Mianeh is a new independent web-based initiative run as a project by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting (iwpr.net) the award-winning non-profit media development organisation that works across the globe to platform local voices and promote international learning and engagement. Mianeh aims to be an open space for ideas, news and debate where writers in Iran can reach out to each other as well as to those outside the country who are interested in learning more about the vibrant and dynamic society that is Iran today.

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