by Golnaz Esfandiari
Election officials in Iran have ordered a random recount of 100 ballot boxes from the June 17 presidential vote after several reformist candidates alleged the vote had been rigged. One of the candidates, Mehdi Karrubi, who failed to advance to the second round of voting after finishing a narrow third, put his allegations in the form of an open letter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and accused military officials of interfering in the vote. Three newspapers that reprinted Karrubi's letter were banned from publication today.
Iran's Guardians Council, the country's top electoral supervisory body, is allowing a recount of 40 randomly selected ballot boxes from the capital Tehran, and 20 boxes each from the cities of Qom, Isfahan, and Mashhad.
The decision comes following growing suspicion over ballot-fraud and vote-rigging allegations made by moderate cleric Mehdi Karrubi and other candidates.
In his letter to the supreme leader, Karrubi claimed the country's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps and Basiji forces used money for a vote-buying scheme. He also alleged the groups had campaigned illegally on behalf of one of the candidates, whom he doesn't name.
A Revolutionary Guard spokesman rejected the charges yesterday and said that Karrubi, who finished third, should not blame others for "his failure in the elections."
In the letter, Karrubi also called on Khamenei to stop what he said was illegal intervention on the part of the Revolutionary Guards and the Guardians Council.
Karrubi on June 18 made similar claims and accused the conservative Guardians Council of supporting Tehran Mayor Mahmud Ahmadinejad, the surprise second-place finisher (19.5 percent) who will face off against moderate cleric Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani (21 percent) in the 24 June runoff.
"I had one hour's sleep last night. And when I woke up to check the results again, I saw that the chairman of the Guardians Council was making comments about the results," Karrubi said. "I contacted the election commission at the Interior Ministry and was told that it appeared that Mr. [Rafsanjani] was in the lead, and that I was in second place. But suddenly the situation changed. I contacted [President Mohammad] Khatami and he said he was on his way to the Interior Ministry and would check."
The editor in chief of the "Eqbal" daily told Iran's state news agency that Tehran's prosecutor blocked his newspaper's publication today because it had printed Karrubi's letter.
Two other newspapers, "Aftab-i Yazd" and "Etemad," were also shut down today for the same reason. Karrubi's letter was also published on several Iranian websites.
Karrubi's concerns were also echoed by Mostafa Moin, the main reformist candidate, who finished in fifth place. Moin in a statement yesterday accused military forces of working together with political organizations to promote a particular candidate and rig the elections.
Before the elections many had predicted that former President Rafsanjani and onetime Higher Education Minister Moin would advance to the second round.
Ahead of Friday's (June 17) vote, Ahmadinejad, a former member the Revolutionary Guard, was considered an outsider with little chance of winning. Ahmadinejad supports strict Islamic beliefs, and since becoming Tehran mayor in 2003 has converted a number of cultural centers into prayer halls.
During a press conference on June 18, Ahmadinejad said he ran as an independent and did not have the support of any political parties or groups. He said he, for one, was not surprised by his successful finish.
"For me, it was not a big surprise. I know the culture of Iranians," he said. "I know how great the people of this country are. And I know that I have developed good relations with the people."
But many are still questioning his second-place finish in the vote.
Mohammad Sadegh Javadi Hessar, a pro-reform journalist in Mashhad, says it is highly unlikely a relatively unknown candidate could have received nearly one-fifth of the vote.
"If in Tehran if we had about 2 million participants, it means about 25 percent of the eligible population voted," Javadi Hessar said. "From this 25 percent, it is impossible that about 700,000 people voted for him. I think there is a problem, and Mr. Karrubi has also pointed to them. This behavior is not at all natural. Mr. Ahmadinejad could not have gained so many votes unless there was some interference that disrupted the normal election process."
Amir Mohseni, the deputy head of Rafsanjani's campaign in Tehran, also expressed doubt over Ahmadinejad's election results. He was quoted by Britain's "The Guardian" newspaper as saying: "We are suspicious. We feel that he was not so popular as to gain this number of votes."
Rafsanjani yesterday called on Iranians to use the runoff to vote against "extremists" who he said had "tarnished" the poll.
Mashaollah Shamsolvaezin, a prominent journalist and the spokesman of the Tehran-based Society for Defense of Press Freedom, told Radio Farda on 18 June the government should investigate the rigging allegations.
"All the polls showed that between 40-45 percent of the eligible voters would participate in the elections. What we got was 15-20 percent higher than that. This indicates that something happened with the ballot boxes. I think Khatami's government -- even though it was not able to fulfill many of its promises in the last eight years -- should fulfill it promise of being trustworthy in safeguarding people's votes. It should inform the public about people's real votes," Shamsolvaezin said.
The unprecedented second round is due to take place on Friday, June 24.
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