Monday, July 20, 2009

Iran: The Value of Elections without Democracy

The upheaval is not yet over in Iran, and I cannot pretend to guess what the ultimate outcome will be. What is significant, though, is that the uprising began over a rigged election, and that even many people who supported Ahmadinejad are unwilling to support his rigging of an election. So perhaps I should rethink my previous dismissal of elections, by themselves, as unimportant.

My argument has been straightforward enough. It is that elections are worthwhile only if actual power resides with the elective government. If real power resides elsewhere -- say, in the army running murderously amok, in extralegal death squads, in war lords, and so forth, elections of a powerless government are worthless. The important thing is to reign in the army/death squads/war lords, stop their murderous abuses, establish civilian control, and then we can think about elections.

Iran calls all that into question. Iran, after all, has an elective government that observes democratic forms, but has very little power, with the real power residing with unelected clergy, who determine who may run for election, and can block any unseemly display of independence by the elective government.

Yet looking at the pro-democratic uprising, it would appear that contested elections of a powerless government do have some value after all. A feeble and very incomplete democratic government had proven useful in teaching Iranians democratic habits. It has taught them to look upon government as their business, and choosing their own leaders as a right. It has also taught some important habits of democratic fair play. Many supporters of Ahmadinejad have said that, although they wanted him to win, stealing an election and trying to set himself up as a dictator are going to far. (Alas, I fear that many Americans do not have this level of maturity!)

Maintaining the democratic facade has, until now, had some wholesome effects on the clerical establishment. Until the latest rigged election, the need to maintain the democratic facade has prevented the Ayatollahs from being too openly and aggressively anti-democratic and doing anything that would expose their undemocratic nature too flagrantly.

So, is maintaining the electoral facade worthwhile, even when the nominally democratic government is powerless and true power lies elsewhere? I generally remain skeptical of such elections and believe that reigning in the excesses of the true wielders of power is more important.

Iran may be a partial exception for several reasons. For one thing, although the Iranian government has undoubtedly engaged in significant violations of human rights, at least in recent times (as opposed to the bloody early days of the Islamic Revolution) those abuses have stopped well short of murderously running amok. The real powers, though far from democratic, have given society the sort of breathing room that allows the future capacity for democracy to develop. (The desire to at least appear to rest on popular consent has no doubt been a restraining factor).

Iran is also most unusual in not concealing where true power lies. Normally when a government maintains an electoral facade, but other forces such as the army, death squads, or war lords rule, the wielders of true power do their best to hide in the shadows and pretend not to be actually in charge. The lawless and deceptive nature of their rule in itself undermines whatever vestigial democracy the government may possess. In Iran, by contrast, the true center of power is openly acknowledged, formally established by the constitution, and governed by official laws. Instead of a lawless, deceptive, and often murderous center of true power, Iran has an open, official, and relatively restrained one. This power center has (until the latest rigged election) operated within certain unspoken but clearly understood rules about what was going to far.

Under these circumstances, maintaining a democratic facade and electing a powerless government may be of some value.

That, however, is the good news. The bad news is that the Iranian theocracy may not have been altogether honest, even with itself, with where the true power lies. Facing growing pressure for democratic reform, the theocracy has come to rely more and more on the Revolutionary Guards and Basij to turn back democratic reformers. Following the most recent rigged election, this reliance has become more clear than ever. And if true power does not lie with the theocracy, but with the Basij and Revolutionary Guards, it is, indeed, has lawless and secretive as in countless other countries. And the clearer it becomes to the Basij and Revolutionary Guards that they and not the theocracy hold true power, the fewer compunctions they will have about running murderously amok.

And once such group entrench themselves in power, it is very difficult, short of outright revolution, to dislodge them.

(PS: This is my 200th post)

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