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A Conservative Core and a Reformist Periphery in Iran’s 21st Century Elections?

Submitted by on July 8, 2013 – 6:19 pm 9 Comments |  
Khatami Ahmadinejad Vote MapAn earlier GeoCurrents post on the 2013 Iranian presidential election highlighted a slight tendency for conservative candidates, such as Saeed Jalili, to do better in the core, Farsi-speaking regions of the country, and for reformers to gather more votes in peripheral areas, especially in the Azeri-speaking northwest and the Balochi-speaking southeast. Intriguingly, earlier elections in this century show the same pattern but with greater intensity. A French map pairing the 2001 first-round election showing for Mohammad Khatami, a reformist, with the 2005 first-round vote for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a conservative, illustrates this tendency clearly. But a number of exceptions are also apparent on the map. On the provincial level, largely Farsi-speaking Fars exhibited relatively little support for Ahmadinejad in 2005, and gave a relatively large percentage of its votes to Khatami in 2001. A number of more pronounced exceptions are found at the district level.

Iran 2005 Election Reformists MapThe Wikipedia has posted several interesting maps of the first round of the 2005 election. One map divides Iran into two regions, one that gave most of its votes to reformist candidates (in green), and the other that supported instead conservative candidates (in red). Here the strength of reformist sentiments in the northwest and in southeast is clearly evident. It is not clear, however, how the creator of the map classified all the candidates in this election. The accompanying article places Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who took a plurality of votes in three provinces, in neither the reformist nor the conservative camp, regarding him instead as a “trans-party” candidate. It would require tedious calculations to determine how Rafsanjani’s votes were tabulated for the map.

Iran 2005 Election First Round MapAnother Wikipedia map of the first round of the 2005 election shows which candidate took first place in each Iranian province. As can be seen by comparing the two, the reformist candidate Mehdi Karroubi won a number of provinces that nonetheless gave a majority of their votes to conservative candidates in this seven-man race, including Fars, Bushehr, and Khuzestan. The most striking pattern on this map, however, is the strength of regionalist and ethnic voting proclivities. As can be seen on the GeoCurrents map, the reformist Karroubi did best in his native Lorestan Province. Another reformist  Mohsen Mehralizadeh, an ethnic Azeri, took only 4.4 percent of the national vote, but he triumphed handily in East Azerbaijan and took a plurality of votes in West Azerbaijan and Ardabil. Ali Ardashir Larijani, a conservative candidate, came in first in only one province, Mazandaran; it is probably not a coincidence that his family is based in that province. Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, another conservative, did much better in his native Khorasan than elsewhere in the country.

Iran 2005 Karroubi MapLess easily explained was the extremely strong showing of the reformist candidate Mostafa Moeen in Sistan and Baluchestan in the southeast.  Moen, a prominent physician, was born in Esfahan (Isfahan) Province in central Iran and established his medical career in Shiraz University in Fars Province. He seems to have triumphed in the restive southeastern province of Sistan and Baluchestan by promising to address ethnic and religious complaints. As the Middle East Research and Information Project explains:

 In the presidential election of 2005, the reformist candidate, Mostafa Moin [Moeen], promised to redress ethnic grievances and appoint Sunni cabinet members. His largest percentage of the vote came in Sistan and Baluchestan. Of the 874,353 votes cast in the province, 479,125 went to Moin. President Ahmadinejad got 47,070.

In Iran’s 2009 election, the incumbent candidate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad beat three challengers in the first round, taking 62 percent of the vote and thus avoiding a second-round election. This election, however, was viewed by many experts as fraudulent, rendering maps of the results suspect. The official map, posted here, shows challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi, an ethnic Azeri, winning only a few districts, located mostly in reformist strongholds in the far northwest and southeast. As the GeoCurrents map shows, Mousavi also did relatively well (in the official vote) in greater Tehran.

Iran 2008 Mousavi Vote MapIntriguingly, Mousavi also officially won several districts in Yazd Province in the center of the country, including Yazd City, population 423,000. Unlike most parts of central Iran, Yazd has leaned strongly in a reformist direction in recent elections. It is noted as the main center of Zoroastrianism in Iran, but its Zoroastrian population is still minor; according to the 2012 census, Iran as a whole contains only 25,271 adherents of this ancient faith. Perhaps more significant is the fact that Yazd is a significant industrial center. Resource competition may also be a factor. Yazd is the driest city in Iran, receiving on average only 1.9 inches (48 mm) of precipitation annually. Yazd contends with neighboring Esfahan (Isfahan) Province for water, which may have generated discontent with the Iranian government. Such water controversies intensified earlier this year. The focus of the current controversy, however, is Esfahan, though Yazd features prominently. As France 24 reported:

Outraged that precious water from their local river is being diverted, last week a group of farmers in Isfahan, Iran destroyed a pump channelling water to the city of Yazd. They’ve been guarding the pump day and night ever since, refusing to let the authorities fix it. Meanwhile, residents of Yazd are suffering from a severe water shortage, leading to fears of unrest there.

All week, the farmers guarding the pump, which is located just outside Isfahan, have been clashing with police. According to opposition news sites, Wednesday and Thursday’s night’s clashes have been the worst yet, with police opening fire on protesters with rubber and lead bullets, wounding many. Despite this, the demonstrators – whom our Observer in Isfahan says number in the several thousand – have stayed put.

The local branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard blames “rebels” for fostering violence, and says the clashes have resulted in injuries and arrests, without specifying any numbers. It also accuses them of attacking a local base belonging to Basij paramilitary volunteers.


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  • SirBedevere

    Obviously, the first thing one thinks of is the issue of language and ethnic identity, as you mention first here, but it is also interesting that the mountains and coasts seem to have more of a reformist tendency. Of course, Iran has lots of mountains and Mazandaran does not seem that staunchly reformist, so this is as suspect as most generalizations, I guess.

    • Interesting idea. I wonder though if topography (mountains, coasts) is related to voting patterns indirectly via the language/ethnicity factor…

      • SirBedevere

        Sure, but I wonder whether there are not economic interests there as well. Of course, I don’t know nearly enough about Iran to do more than speculate.

  • Trigoogol

    The terming of Iran’s different political factions is unfortunately one of the most inaccurate portrayals of reality.

    For example, it is claimed that Ahmadinejad belongs to the conservative movement but there was hardly anything conservative about his domestic policies. Yes, he did have an aggressive foreign policy but Iran’s foreign policy was always indirectly dictated by the supreme leader. Ahmadinejad had to please the religious hardliners by saying things that he didn’t necessarily stand for, such as his constant threats against Israel. But the reality of Ahmadinejad is far different from what the international media thinks of him. During his time in power, Iran executed significantly less people than any other administration since 1980. Ahmadinejad also removed many restrictions that were previously imposed on women and their head-covering in public places. Unlike his predecessors, he was the least interested in applying strict Islamic dress codes on the population. His right-hand man, Mashaei, was the real voice of Ahmadinejad, without the mullah interference. Everything Mashaei said, including things like becoming friends with Israel and moving away from Islamism, represented the true ideas of Ahmadinejad, which Ahmadinejad was too afraid to say himself, out of fear of being overthrown by the supreme leader. Ahmadinejad was hardly as conservative as foreigners think.

    On the other hand, the so called Reformist movement of Iran, which had the likes of Khatami and currently Rouhani, is the most bloody movement in the country. While the Reformists are cleverer in showing themselves as soft-spoken people and while they do a good job smiling to the photographers, the fact is these so called “reformists” have executed more Iranians during their time in power than any other political alliance in Iran. They also enforced the strictest Islamic laws on men and women, such as the dress code.

    The reformist movement is unsurprisingly very powerful in Iran’s northwest because that is where the Safavid Shia order was founded. Northwestern Iran is the religious heart of the country. Ardabil, Tabriz and other northwestern cities are the most passionate in maintaining the religious/Islamic institutions of the country. Of course this is where the reformists get most of their support from, because most of the so called reformists are clerics who graduated from Shia orders in the northwest. Khatami and Rouhani are perfect examples of alleged reformers even though they graduated from Islamic schools instead of ordinary schools. The northwest is famous for being both the defender of Shia Islamic doctrine and the graveyard of any opposing belief system, such as the Baha’i faith.

    Iran is a mess that nobody in the outside can perfectly understand.

    Here’s how you should look at it. When the supreme leader feels like Iran should become harsh and vocal against the “enemies” of the state, he will manufacture a landslide victory for the so called conservatives because he knows that this political alliance doesn’t care too much about Islamism, and therefore this movement will be extremely vocal against Iran’s enemies in order to please the supreme leader and convince him that they are fit to rule. On the other hand, when the supreme leader realizes that it’s time to have a softer foreign policy, he will put one of his own people (ie a religious man) as president. This means the religious man will be softer in his tone against the Israelis/westerners. In the meantime he will direct all his energy inwardly and legislate hellish domestic policies against his own citizens.

    When it comes to voting matters, the most religious people will vote for the clerics. You cant beat southeastern Iran and northwestern Iran in religiousness. These two regions are extremely passionate about Islam. And although the Baluchis and Kurds are mostly Sunni, a good number of them were either born as Shia or recently converted to Shia Islam, and they’re powerful enough to sway votes. In addition to that, many Sunnis also wouldn’t mind voting for Shia hardliners because they share similar habits than the city dwellers of Tehran and Esfahan et al, who are less compatible with rural or semi-urban behaviors.

    • Thank you for sharing this!

    • Yes, many thanks for the fascinating comments. I went along with the conventional “reformist” and “conservative” dichotomy, as it is well established, but I did have some misgivings about doing so. I found the intriguing situation of the disqualified candidate Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, who is indeed very close to Ahmadinejad, especially confusing. Stock descriptions of Mashaei range from “religious nationalist” to “pragmatist” to “moderate conservative” to “social and cultural liberal.”

      You are certainly right about the religious movement that created Shia Safavid Iran (the Kizilbashi) originated in Azerbaijan and environs among Turkic-speaking peoples, but I have been under the impression that Qom has long been Iran’s religious heartland.

      At any rate, I will continue to think about your provocative comments. I hope that some other readers with equally deep knowledge about Iran can contribute to this discussion as well.

      • sma

        What make you confused is that western media usually hide many facts from you.
        Iran leader never have bad idea about Israelis, i mean the people who has Israel nationality, even as you may know were Iranian Jews. you may never heard but even Imam Khomeini had said we have no problem with the Jews and even Iranian Jews are welcome to return to Iran if they want. but western media never broad cast these things.

        Mashaei did not say a new thing. he said we have no problem for friendship with Israelis, but he has said that Isreal is died and they did not delclare this fact.

        Ahamdinejad himself explain his idea about disappearing Israel:
        we want that the Zionist government to be removed. like USSR. It has been removed. but disappearing a country does not mean killing the people.

        • Unfortunately, Iranian media doesn’t seem to be any better at revealing facts to the population than the Western media. “Zionist” is about providing a safe “home” for Jews in their historical homeland. If “Zionist” movement is to be removed, or the Zionist idea itself is to be disregarded, it means no safe home for Jews, no national self-determination, i.e. no rights like all other people. And we know what happens to Jews when they live somewhere other than a safe homeland of their own, including in Iran: they are either mass murdered or kicked out. This story of genocide against the Jews has repeated itself countless times in history. So what Iran is calling for is exterminating the Jews, even if they talk about “friendship with Israeli” etc., all nonsense really, just sugarcoating it for purposes of their propaganda. And how are explicit calls of “Death to the Jews!” be understood in any other way but murdering the people?!

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