The first round of the 2005 Iranian presidential election was rich in lessons regarding the country’s political life, in general, and regarding the political comportment of diverse sectors of the population, in particular. Contrary to what is often said, electoral fraud alone does not explain — or only partially explains — the victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His incontestable win over one of the most eminent members of the clergy, former President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, had deeper causes that require an analysis borrowing from various social sciences.

The first point is that five of the seven candidates were tightly bunched in the first-round results, at between 14.7 and 21.7 percent of the vote, necessitating a second round. This equilibrium among the candidates, if not among the larger political forces, renders Ahmadinejad’s victory relative, insofar as he only received 19.7 percent of the first-round votes, and only won the election with the second round.

Political diversity is equally manifest at the regional level, since each of the seven candidates won the majority in at least one province — a rarity in political geography. Ali Larijani, Mohsen Mehralizadeh, Mohammad Baqir Qalibaf and Rafsanjani all received massive support in their home province or region, whereas Mehdi Karroubi, Mostafa Moin and, especially, Ahmadinejad garnered majorities in a number of provinces, for reasons not due to localism. The result is a new Iranian political geography, one that transcends ethnic divides or historical traditions.

The case of Ahmadinejad is completely singular and, at first blush, inexplicable. How could an almost unknown Islamist militant, who made his name in local administration and the intelligence services, receive several hundred thousand more votes than a political figure with as much capacity for popular mobilization as Karroubi? How could he mobilize such an electorate?

Sociological, economic and political analyses have shown which social and ideological groups supported the former mayor of Tehran. The map presented here highlights other factors, raising new questions.

The map shows, in effect, an exceptional concentration of Ahmadinejad voters in the central regions of Iran. He obtained more than 50 percent of the vote in the urban region of Isfahan, in Qom and in the Yazd province. Another zone of popularity for him was Birjand, to the south of Khorasan. Ahmadinejad’s
place of birth (Garmasr, to the east of Tehran) does not explain this pattern; nor does the fact that he is a Shi‘i ethnic Persian, as other Shi‘i and Persian-speaking regions did not vote for him. The statistical analysis did not allow for the establishment of a direct correlation between the voting and socio-cultural or demographic factors, such as voters’ age, occupation, level of education or urbanity. This perhaps shows that socio-cultural or economic causes do not explain the electoral victory. One must therefore take into account other factors. What are the characteristics of the zone of central Iran that “invented” Ahmadinejad?

One notes immediately that this zone is the heart of historical and “traditional” Iran, beginning in the Safavid era. It is Persian-speaking and Shi‘i, organized along the lines of small towns, each with a bazaar and a mosque. The contrast between this region and peripheral, non-Persian and occasionally Sunni regions, like the areas peopled by Kurds and Baluch, is very clear. Inhabitants of the peripheral regions voted in the lowest numbers for the new president or abstained from voting entirely (especially Kurds). There are several important caveats to this geographical model opposing center and periphery, as the Shiraz, Kerman and Mashhad regions are also Shi‘i and Persian-speaking, but did not support Ahmadinejad. The political geography of ethnicity and religion does provide at least part of the explanation, however.

Nonetheless, the real reason for the local character of the voting may lie elsewhere, in the recent history of the Islamic Republic. These regions were the first, in the autumn of 1978, to break with the imperial regime, and had become nearly autonomous even before the fall of the Shah. They furnished the first foot soldiers of the Islamic Revolution and the first Revolutionary Guards when the Iran-Iraq war broke out. These provinces supplied a large number of “martyrs.” No evidence exists to verify a direct correlation between the number of martyrs and the vote for Ahmadinejad, but this hypothesis deserves further study. The Foundation of Martyrs (Bonyad-e Shahid) and the Volunteers’ (Basiji) Organization constitute, along with the Guardians of the Revolution and the numerous Islamic associations, a network of mutual aid and ideological sympathy that is perhaps stronger in these regions than in others. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the only candidate to have forged and maintained relations with these populist milieus, thanks largely to his duties in local administration and state security. He could easily mobilize these voters and win their support.

Unlike other candidates, who campaigned among the intelligentsia, who do not vote, Ahmadinejad understood that political victory comes through popular appeal. While other candidates controlled the state apparatus, he took pains to reinforce his local networks and to provide himself with a social, but also geographic, electoral base. This was a paradoxical, but certainly real, step in the very slow and difficult political constitution of the Iranian republic.

Translated from French by Paul Silverstein

How to cite this article:

Bernard Hourcade "In the Heart of Iran," Middle East Report 241 (Winter 2006).
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