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Assessing the ethnic vote in Iran's elections

Iran's presidential elections have revealed the true extent of the ethnic dimension of Iranian politics, which could prove to be the country's most revolutionary force.

Ethnic issues were at the fore of campaigning in ethnic minority-dominated provinces. In a recent article for the National Democratic Institute, Kaveh-Cyrus Sanandaji of the Middle East Centre at St. Antony's College, University of Oxford, wrote:
The resurgence in minority grievances has recently brought ethnic politics to the fore with an unprecedented sense of urgency, and the regime has taken steps to assuage perceptions of disenfranchisement or repression shared by ethnic minorities ...
The discourse on ethnic politics has also drastically expanded during the 2009 presidential campaigns. Mousavi in particular has been campaigning in the minority-dominated provinces of Azerbaijan, Khuzestan, Kermanshah, Mazandaran and Golestan, among others. Beyond the standard assurances of greater minority incorporation in government and promises to respect minority rights, which are echoed by Karroubi and Rezai, Mousavi has proposed unprecedented, detailed policies to address minority grievances.
Voting trends reveal that despite efforts to campaign for the ethnic minority vote, increasing numbers of non-Persians are rejecting the political system and abstaining. The official results show that six provinces where the presidential election turn-out was below 80% are dominated by Kurds, Arabs, Azeris and Balochis, indicating a growing ethnic-based resistance to the political system. Outside these provinces, turnout averaged 90% and ranged between 80-100%.

The far lower rates of turnout in provinces where non-Persian ethnic groups are concentrated indicate a higher rate of 'rejectionist' sentiment that can be attributed to secessionist, autonomist or federalist sentiment. There is no motivating factor other than ethnicity that can account for the sharp divergence in abstention rates between ethnic Persians and non-Persians. The lower rates of turnout are therefore a sign of significant progress for the banned ethnic federalist and secessionist movements that called for an election boycott.

Ethnicity-related rejectionism can be roughly deduced by measuring the difference between the turnout in predominantly Persian and non-Persian provinces. This difference was around 27% in Kurdistan, 21% in West Azerbaijan, 19% in Khuzestan, 16% in Sistan va Balochistan and 11% each in Ardabil and Kermanshah. The Kurdish population, which covers Kermanshah and significant parts of West Azerbaijan as well as Kurdistan province, appears to be the most inclined towards separatism while the Azeris, which are concentrated in West and East Azerbaijan and Ardabil, appear to be the least separatist. The Arab population, which makes up a majority in Khuzestan, and the Balochis also have higher rates of rejection of the political system than seen in Persian areas of the country. In the Golestan and North Khorasan provinces, where the one-million strong Turkmen population is concentrated, the abstention rate is a third higher than the national average at around 20%.

Further adjustment to exclude Persian minorities in these six non-Persian provinces suggests that up to one in three Kurds, one in four Arabs and Balochis and one in nine Azeris - totalling at least three to four million Iranian citizens, or 20-28% of the non-Persian electorate - could be in favour of a political revolution where ethnic groups are given more autonomy or outright independence. This is likely to be a conservative estimate, since these figures are based on flawed election results which may have exagerrated turnout in these provinces in order to hand President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad his re-election victory.

Moreover, many non-Persians who voted for the 'reformist' candidates Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi had regarded them as the least worst option, having been encouraged by their appeals for greater attention to ethnic rights. This could have accounted for Mousavi's considerable vote among Azeris, who comprise at least a quarter of Iran's population and are generally loyal to any Azeri candidate. The Bakhtiari and Lori votes in the provinces of Chahar Mahal and Bakhtiari and Lorestan may also have been encouraged by Rezaee and Karroubi, who are from these ethnic groups. Turnouts in these provinces were above the national average, although the vote for these candidates was suspiciously poor even in their home towns.

Given a genuine choice in free and fair elections, it is likely that non-Persian groups would opt for greater powers over their regional affairs. When the ethnic rejectionist vote is combined with the official votes for the 'reformist' candidates, two-thirds of the non-Persian electorate rejected Ahmadinejad. After factoring in the fake votes for Ahmadinejad and the likely uncounted votes for his opponents, the desire for change among non-Persians is overwhelming - potentially at least 80% - and far stronger than among Iran's dominant Persian ethnic group.

The level of mobilisation around ethnicity is as strong as class identity and is an important dimension in the debate on Iran's political future. Yet, the future of Iran could be determined by this political under-current that is sidelined by the self-appointed 'Iran experts' in the West as well as Iran's own repressed intelligensia and highly censored media.