Monday, June 15, 2009

The Iranian Election - Is the internet fooling us?

I'm somewhat disturbed by the coverage of Iranian elections. Don't get me wrong - I was (and still am) really hoping for a Mousavi victory. However, blogs and newspapers had started to shape the elections either as a Mousavi victory or a tainted election way before the elections. But there were no numbers to back it up. Most of the assessments were based on images and statements from people participating in the rallies and the internet. Yes, Mousavi rallies in Tehran and some other cities were indeed very impressive. Then the results came out and it was a shocker - at least with regards to our expectations. Not surprisingly, charges of rigging were everywhere along with wild speculations about how the election was fixed. Is it possible that we have been deceived by our self-reinforcing blogs and media reports - all based on scant information? This doesn't have to be a part of any conspiracy. Wasn't Howard Dean on a roll in the 2004 Democratic primaries? At least that's how it appeared on the internet and even in several of the polls - and then he ended up finishing a disappointing 3rd in Iowa. Yes, Dean's supporters were vocal and had a strong presence on the internet. He lost perhaps due to to bad organization on the ground. Nevertheless, it provides us with a cautionary tale.

We now have a tricky situation in Iran. Many are calling for Obama to publicly reject the elections (Biden already cast a doubt om the elections in yesterday's Meet the Press). The Washington Post and the NYT already have scathing editorials today. What I find strange is that not many people are talking about an opinion piece in today's Washington Post that presents an analysis of pre-election opinion polls. As far as I know, it is the only piece in a major newspaper today that presents an analysis backed by actual numbers. The authors find that the results are in fact a direct reflection of the opinion survey conducted a few weeks ago. These guys may be completely wrong (and I hope they are and the result gets overturned) - but we at least have to pay some attention to their data. So here are some of their highlights:
The election results in Iran may reflect the will of the Iranian people. Many experts are claiming that the margin of victory of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the result of fraud or manipulation, but our nationwide public opinion survey of Iranians three weeks before the vote showed Ahmadinejad leading by a more than 2 to 1 margin -- greater than his actual apparent margin of victory in Friday's election.

While Western news reports from Tehran in the days leading up to the voting portrayed an Iranian public enthusiastic about Ahmadinejad's principal opponent, Mir Hossein Mousavi, our scientific sampling from across all 30 of Iran's provinces showed Ahmadinejad well ahead.
So three weeks ago, Ahmadinejad was ahead in all 30 provinces! But how reliable is the poll:

Independent and uncensored nationwide surveys of Iran are rare. Typically, preelection polls there are either conducted or monitored by the government and are notoriously untrustworthy. By contrast, the poll undertaken by our nonprofit organizations from May 11 to May 20 was the third in a series over the past two years. Conducted by telephone from a neighboring country, field work was carried out in Farsi by a polling company whose work in the region for ABC News and the BBC has received an Emmy award. Our polling was funded by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

Now, much is being made that Mousavi lost his own Azeri ethnic vote - and that would be impossible in a fair election. But the polling was already showing a different trend:
The breadth of Ahmadinejad's support was apparent in our preelection survey. During the campaign, for instance, Mousavi emphasized his identity as an Azeri, the second-largest ethnic group in Iran after Persians, to woo Azeri voters. Our survey indicated, though, that Azeris favored Ahmadinejad by 2 to 1 over Mousavi.
And now we come to the possible internet illusion:

Much commentary has portrayed Iranian youth and the Internet as harbingers of change in this election. But our poll found that only a third of Iranians even have access to the Internet, while 18-to-24-year-olds comprised the strongest voting bloc for Ahmadinejad of all age groups.

The only demographic groups in which our survey found Mousavi leading or competitive with Ahmadinejad were university students and graduates, and the highest-income Iranians. When our poll was taken, almost a third of Iranians were also still undecided. Yet the baseline distributions we found then mirror the results reported by the Iranian authorities, indicating the possibility that the vote is not the product of widespread fraud.

By the way, in this interconnected world it is quite possible that progressives in Iran may have overestimated their own numbers based on their internet presence and media coverage in the West - reflecting back to create the image of a rigged election. This was reminding me of Pakistan. Most Pakistanis that you'll meet in the US are from Karachi, Lahore or Islamabad. They hold a particular view of Pakistan and are (usually :) ) well adjusted to the modern world. But 70% of Pakistan's population lives in rural areas with not much introduction to modernity - let alone the internet. While twitter, blogs, and facebook may bring you one aspect of Pakistan, in a free and fair election, that may not represent the electoral reality.

But why would Iranians support Ahmedinejad? Well...I don't know... because I don't find much to support him. But it seems that many Iranians consider him a strong negotiator. But at the same time, a majority wants free press, free elections, and better relations with the US:

For instance, nearly four in five Iranians -- including most Ahmadinejad supporters -- said they wanted to change the political system to give them the right to elect Iran's supreme leader, who is not currently subject to popular vote. Similarly, Iranians chose free elections and a free press as their most important priorities for their government, virtually tied with improving the national economy. These were hardly "politically correct" responses to voice publicly in a largely authoritarian society.

Indeed, and consistently among all three of our surveys over the past two years, more than 70 percent of Iranians also expressed support for providing full access to weapons inspectors and a guarantee that Iran will not develop or possess nuclear weapons, in return for outside aid and investment. And 77 percent of Iranians favored normal relations and trade with the United States, another result consistent with our previous findings.

Iranians view their support for a more democratic system, with normal relations with the United States, as consonant with their support for Ahmadinejad. They do not want him to continue his hard-line policies. Rather, Iranians apparently see Ahmadinejad as their toughest negotiator, the person best positioned to bring home a favorable deal -- rather like a Persian Nixon going to China.

Elections may still have been rigged. But we need to pay attention to the data that we have. From what Ballen and Doherty are showing us, we need to at least take a second look at their claims. All that said, it is also possible that the protest rallies in Iran - even if they are for the wrong reasons - may force a change in regime. Ayotallah Ali Khamenei is quite pragmatic when it comes to the issues of power. If he sees that the protests are getting out of hand, he may go against Ahmadinejad. That will be good, but that may still not mean that the elections were rigged.

In any case, read the full article here and their Iranian opinion survey here (pdf).

UPDATE (6/16): Here is a better article that addresses the above opinion poll and looks at the issue in a more complex light: Many signs of fraud, but no hard evidence. And also see read this quite reasonable opinion piece by David Ignatius: Obama's massage to Iran.


Anonymous said...

Internet is not fooling is you who is trying to fool everybody.

Ali Kazim Gardezi said...

Very nice analysis Salman Sb.

Atif Khan said...

This Jamshed guy has some serious issues with Salman. Seems like he is one of the Yahya's fans.

Salman Hameed said...

Good guess, Atif. Jamshed runs a Yahya-fan blog from India.

Don said...

I've been looking for numbers on this, as well-- the BBC has been reporting in a similar style to the Zimbabwean elections between Tsvangirai and Mugabe. So far, though, I have noticed less evidence that the election was rigged or unfair. As usual for modern Iran, I guess it just comes down to what Khamenei does.

Atif Khan said...

I am wondering why religious fervor has always problem with honesty.

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