Who will win Iran’s ‘alternative, virtual’ vote?

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With five of Iran’s six presidential nominees labeled as conservatives, few can say this year’s election offers variety to the public. This is why a group of international activists, chaired by Russian world chess champion and political rights advocate Garry Kasparov, have set up an alternative, online voting system called “We Choose.”

The system is entirely symbolic, designed to “empower [Iranians] to reflect their political tendencies freely and securely,” said Nima Tamaddon, a U.S.-based journalist taking part in the project. It is a virtual race that boasts 20 candidates, including reformist leaders, political prisoners, and some presidential nominees who had been disqualified by Iran’s vetting body, the Guardian Council.

It is taking place because “Iranians, indeed all people, have a right to vote freely for the candidate of their choice to lead them,” said Nazie Eftekhari, a U.S.-based member of the project’s oversight committee, and founder of the charity “Foundation for the Children of Iran.”

Iranian citizens were able to anonymously use the virtual election platform from June 7 until June 13. The results will be publicized on June 14, which coincides with the official election, Kasparov told Al Arabiya English. He and his co-committee will oversee the virtual vote in a bid to ensure that it remains “neutral and unbiased.”

The committee includes Dr Firouz Naderi, an Iranian-American scientist, a director at NASA, and former head of the Mars Exploration Program. The panel includes Stanford University Professor Francis Fukuyama and Professor Irwin Cotler, former minister of justice and attorney-general of Canada, among others. “We put our reputations at stake to make sure the results will be absolutely transparent,” Kasparov said.

Eftekhari told Al Arabiya English that, being Iranian, she was concerned about publicly lending her voice to the initiative in case of reprisals from the government. “But courage isn’t the absence of fear. I choose not to be afraid. History is made by those who ‘show up’ one way or another.”

Russian template

The initiative, Kasparov said, is based on technology that was first applied successfully in an online election of opposition leaders in Russia in Oct. 2012. This online voting platform was developed by Dr. Leonid Volkovin, political activist and former senior vice president of SKB Kontur, one of Russia’s largest software companies.

The desire to establish online elections came in response to President Vladimir Putin’s statement that equated the Russian opposition to no more than a gaggle of internet dwellers with “no unified program, no clear and comprehensible way of achieving their unclear goals,” the Associated Press reported in October.

Nearly 82,000 voted in the virtual election, which was intended to help the opposition present a more united front against the Kremlin, according to AP.

Translating Russian into Farsi

According to Kasparov, he was directly approached by Iranian “dissidents” seeking to use the Russian template for their own symbolic elections.

“For the first time, Mr. Kasparov had been exposed to such an idea through meeting with individual Iranian activists and students,” said Tamaddon, “Neither Iranian organizations nor any well-known individual Iranians are involved in this project. That’s exactly our strength. We’re not affiliated with Iranian political factions.”

The “We Choose” platform seeks to “remind the people of their basic right, which is the right to choose and [the right to] self-determination,” said Tamaddon. The initiative is fueled by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s 2009 election win, which was marred by widespread allegations of vote-rigging, and led to nationwide protests and a violent crackdown by authorities.

“There’s a lack of trust in Iran’s election system, and what happened in 2005 [when Ahmadinejad secured his first term] and 2009 were just the tip of the iceberg. For many years, there hasn’t been a free and fair election in Iran,” added Tamaddon.

Who is running in the virtual race?

Of the 686 hopefuls who registered to run in Iran’s elections, only eight were approved by the Guardian Council, a body made up of 12 jurists: six chosen by Iran’s supreme leader, and six by parliament. The number of candidates dropped to six this week, following Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel and Mohammad Reza-Aref’s announcements that they would drop out of the race.
Due to the previous vetting of candidates, for many Iranians “the election is [about] choosing between ‘bad’ and ‘worse’,” Tamaddon said.

“Iranians want to be heard,” added Eftekhari. “All people have a right to vote freely for the candidate of their choice to lead them.” This is why the “We Choose” team decided to feature 20 presidential candidates, including the officially sanctioned eight.

Reza Pahlavi, the son of the deposed shah, is included in the virtual ballot, as are Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, leaders of the reformist Green Movement that swept Iran after 2009’s allegedly rigged elections. Nasrin Sotoudeh, a female human rights lawyer known for her high-profile cases, is also on the list.

“It was important for us to include candidates as varied as possible. We wanted to empower the voters to think out of the box, and we decided to give them more colorful options to choose, beyond those qualified by the Guardian Council,” Tamaddon said.

Keeping virtual voters safe

This voting system is “for anyone with access to a computer,” said Eftekhari. “I guess it’s time for Iranians to ‘click and choose to be free’.”

The process, added Tamaddon, is designed to keep participants “safe and secure.” Anonymity is a priority. To vote, the online electorate goes to www.Rai-e-Ma.org, then submits a phone number within Iran where they can receive a text or automated phone call. The message they receive contains a phrase to be used as a password when voting.

“Duplicate SMS messages are sent randomly to a significant number of recipients besides the voter. This prevents tracking of the voters and gives the voters plausible deniability,” and is just one of the ways in which the system seeks to protect users, explains the website.

However, the Iranian government has already blocked the website within the country, and it has come under “massive cyber-attack during the past days,” said Tamaddon. Such measures were expected by the website’s architects. “Cyber security measures built into the platform successfully managed to thwart the attacks, and the Iranian people can still reach the page after bypassing censorship via VPNs [virtual private networks],” added Tamaddon.

Reflecting the will of the people

The “We Choose” organizers do not believe that the Iranian government reflects the will of the people, or their constitutionally given right to express their opinion. “Today, technology, and men and women of goodwill, afford this opportunity to Iranians. It’s time to hear who they choose, albeit symbolically,” said Eftekhari.