John Key’s Zen press conference, and Iran’s stolen election

Faced with the dying embers of the Richard Worth scandal at his press conference yesterday (audio & report, video), John Key reached for gasoline, not water. The press gallery had begun a simple enough line of enquiry – what HAD caused Key to lose trust in Worth? There were many valid ways of not answering that question but Key chose the worst possible one – by refusing to answer it at all. “For me, it’s the chapter closed to that story and I’m moving on.” Within seconds, Key had managed to transform a relatively benign gathering of journalists into an incredulous, baying pack of newshounds.

Certainly, the press gallery can be precious when its feelings are blatantly disregarded. Key was gambling that even if the press gallery got its nose out of joint, not many journalists could communicate their annoyance in a damaging way to a wider public that Key senses (quite correctly) is bored with this whole shabby affair. Up on the ninth floor it had probably sounded like a good idea – time for Key to close the door on Dr Worth, put Mt Albert behind him, and regain his mojo. Trouble is, Key’s performance was so inept that he managed to unite Guyon Espiner, Barry Soper and the rest of the gallery in baffled outrage. Who was he trying to protect, someone asked – Dr Worth, or himself?

The questions kept coming, and brought relevant issues to the fore that Key might have preferred to have kept buried. If Key wouldn’t reveal anything about his cause for ending Dr Worth’s ministerial career what did this say about Key’s commitment to open government? Or to accountability – either for himself or for his Ministers? How could anyone now tell whether Worth had been properly – or unfairly – treated? Barry Soper was moved to observe that he had never seen the like before, of such refusal to divulge why a Minister had been sacked.

Consistently, all that came back from Key was that it was time to move on, that John Key thought himself a fair and reasonable person and the New Zealand public did too, and that was that. Somehow, everyone would just know what the expected standards were, he indicated, and that they had been applied fairly in this case.

A fascinating episode, all round. Coming off the back of the government’s recent setbacks, it probably wasn’t a good time to be enraging the press gallery quite so unnecessarily. What it boiled down to was that the Prime Minister had sacked one of his Ministers, for culpably causing a loss of trust – but by means, and regarding issues, that Key seemed intent on ensuring would remain a mystery. As Guyon Espiner pointed out, Key had only recently explained away his ‘no comment’ stance on the grounds of not wishing to contaminate the ongoing police investigation into a complaint against Worth. Yet today, Key was saying the reason [for his silence] was ‘nothing of a legal nature’. Not for the first time, Key’s previous rationale had simply vanished like smoke.

With evident relief Key turned to a few non-Worth questions, but the pattern had been set. His replies were none the clearer. The Families Commission, it was pointed out, has just come out in favour of a “yes” vote for July’s $9 million referendum on child discipline. Since Christine Rankin is on the Families Commission would Key be expecting her to continue her opposition to the stance being taken by the organization to which she now belongs? Key’s response to this was puzzlingly Delphic. Yes, Rankin is on the Families Commission, and its decisions are reached collectively, he pointed out. But no, he wouldn’t expect her to be speaking out in opposition to it. Or apparently, in favour of it. To which the only follow up question was – huh ?

Ultimately, the press conference ended as it began, with a head-scratching answer to a fairly straight-forward question. When could we expect the government to announce its decision, I asked Key, on whether or not it would be responding positively to the US request made some months ago, for New Zealand to contribute more troops to the war in Afghanistan?

Key’s reply was that there was a review under way and so, that meant ‘sometime’ between the middle of the year and the end of the year. So did that mean it was likely that a decision would be issuedafter the elections were held in Afghanistan ?

Mystifyingly, Key replied that as Prime Minister, he would be continuing the policy of not announcing anything about the deployment of our SAS troops. Which, like his position on Dr Richard Worth, could mean almost anything. It could mean that we’ll tell you once we’ve decided, and the SAS are already in combat. Or, that we have said “yes” to the Americans but the fact of deployment – if not the detail – will be released later. Or, that they’re there already but we wouldn’t tell you if they are. Or, tune in again sometime later, and we might/might not have made a decision and might/might not tell you what it is.

Who would have thought that behind the smiley face of John Key lay the inscrutable mask of a Zen master? And that the press gallery reaction to this press conference would be the sound of one hand clapping – its collective forehead?

Iran’s rigged election

The evidence that Iran’s election was rigged in favour of incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has to be circumstantial, but the relevant evidence is piling up. For one thing, the final results were announced less than three hours after polls were closed – in a country where ballots have to be hand counted.

More to the point, some regional results appear absurd. The failures of reformist candidates Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi to carry their home regions defies belief. As al Jazeera pointed out,

Ahmadinejad had apparently taken the northwestern city of Tabriz with some ease. Tabriz is the heart of East Azerbaijan, and Azeris are among the tightest ethnic groups in the country, unfailingly voting along ethnic lines.

In the 2005 presidential election, Mohsen Mehralizadeh was a largely unknown and wholly unsuccessful candidate. He came in seventh and last, and yet he still won the Azeri vote in the Azerbaijani provinces. Mir Hossein Mousavi is an Azeri from Tabriz….

That unlikely pattern, as the prominent Middle East expert Professor Juan Cole has pointed out, was repeated for the other reformist candidate Mehdi Karroubi. Allegedly Karroubi scored only 5% on his home turf in Luristan and in neighbouring Khuzestan – regions where he is highly popular, and where he scored 55% and 36 % of the vote in 2005. Though conservatives won only 20% of the vote in Luristan in 2005 in a low turnout election skewed in their favour, we are somehow expected to believe that Ahmadinejad won 71% of the vote in Luristan last Friday, amid an election climate buoyed by the prospects for reform!

Nationwide, Karroubi won a sizeable 17% of the vote in 2005 – an election where large numbers of women and youth stayed home in droves in protest at the narrow slate of candidates and the dim prospects for reform. Yet again, amid a high turnout this year sparked by the likelihood of reform, we are being expected to believe that the reformist Karroubi received only 1% of the vote nationwide ? Yeah, right.

As Juan Cole says, the Tabriz result is a sticking point. “ For an Azeri urban centre to go so heavily for Ahmadinejad just makes no sense.”. Moreover, he points out, Ahmadinejad is claimed to have taken Tehran by over 50% – despite being unpopular in the cities, partly because his policies are blamed for high inflation and rates of unemployment. “ That he should have won Teheran is so unlikely as to raise real questions about the numbers…In 2005, Ahmadinejad is widely thought only to have won Teheran [narrowly] in 2005, because the pro-reform groups were discouraged and stayed home rather than voting.”

Statistically, this year’s election also runs counter to a positive pattern evident since the revolution in 1979 – for victory margins in Iran to become tighter, thanks to greater pluralism and growing competition between candidates. Furthermore, to believe that pre-election polling misread the conservative mood outside the urban centres, Cole concludes, is also misguided, and defies logic. He sums up :

To believe that the 20% hard line support of 2001 has become 63% in 2009, we would have to posit that Iran is less urban, less literate and less interested in cultural issues today than 8 years ago. We would have to posit that the reformist camp once again boycotted the election and stayed home in droves. [Obviously this was not the case.]

So, observers who want to lay a guilt trip on us about falling for Moussavi’s smooth upper middle class schtick are simply ignoring the last 12 years of Iranian history…It is simply not true that the typical Iranian voter votes conservative and religious when he or she gets the chance. In fact, Moussavi is substantially more conservative than the typical winning politician in 2000. Given the enormous turnout of some 80 percent, and given the growth of Iran’s urban sector, the spread of literacy, and the obvious yearning for ways around the puritanism of the hard liners, Moussavi should have won in the ongoing culture war.

Ahmadinejad may have “won” – but with Moussavi supporters now being shot down in the streets, this looks like a Pyrrhic victory for the regime.


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