Tuesday, June 21, 2005

For good or ill, institutions matter

For the anti-war left, the elections in Iraq were a sham: with voting taking place under occupation - and the result unlikely to alter this fact, they argue that democracy has not broken out in Iraq.

For the pro-war left, the Iranian elections are used as an example of constitutional illusion: they have competitive elections but with so many candidates barred from the outset, and the result unable to even dent the hegemony of the priesthood, the elections are a fraud.

In this case, I would argue that, to some extent, both are right: Iraq's elections mattered - but so does the Iranian one, not because either are exactly models of free and fair elections but because institutions matter.

They matter because they generally outlive their creators and their maker's original purpose. The Duma, for instance, was set up by Nicholas II in response to the 1905 revolution. Everyone understands that the Tsarist state was a creaking relic from an absolutist age and this parliament did not alter that fact. As well as excluding the most popular parties - the Social Revolutionaries and the Social Democrats - it had no power over the choice of the cabinet or over the privileged position of the Orthodox Church or the aristocracy.

Yet consider the fate of the Duma: it outlived the Romanovs and their sickly offspring, the ill-fated Provisional Government; it survived Stalin, the Kruschev thaw, the Breshnev stagnation and the collapse of the USSR itself. Post-Soviet Russia is scarcely a model of democracy but apart from a few Stalinist die-hards and the Chechens - no-one believes either Stalin or Ivan the Terrible represented a more congenial regime than Putin.

A similar point could be made about the German Reichstag: it survived Bismarck, Hitler and defeat in two world wars.

The endurance of institutions is one of the reasons why I think some Scottish nationalists were short-sighted in opposing devolution: the pattern for regional assemblies in Europe has generally been that they accrue more powers over time, rather than less.

It's one of the reasons the minimum wage was such a good idea: it was and is certainly parsimonious but the importance of it is it established the principle of a floor for wages.

And it's one of the reasons why ID cards and religious incitement legislation are such bad ideas. It's all very well for the Blairites to insist that the former won't be used to control the population or the latter won't censor criticism of religion. If these pieces of legislation are passed, ID cards and incitement legislation will be around long after Blair is dead and buried, and who knows what uses some future regime may put these.

The Iranian elections are like this. Because they can't really bring about a change in government, they have been dismissed - but if there's anything in what I've said, perhaps they shouldn't be? Firstly, that they're held at all is more important than is often supposed because it serves to illustrate the point that democracy - rather than inheritance or religion - is understood all over the world as the basis for authority and the fact that Tehran feels the need to pay lip-service to it is not insignificant. It's not a coincidence, for instance, that women are permitted to vote in Iran's phoney elections and also have more liberty than they do in Saudi Arabia. And neither is it insignificant that these elections have become occasions for dissent. It falls very short of authentic democracy obviously, but they represent institutions that could someday form the basis of genuinely competitive elections.

And if this point can be accepted with regards to Iran, surely it should in the case if Iraq? Unsurprisingly, I don't share the anti-war view of the Iraqi elections. There's no evidence that people voted out of fear of the Americans; there is rather more evidence that people didn't vote because they found the chillingly simple slogan, "You vote; you die" off-putting, to say the least. The elections were far from perfect and they haven't, of course, ended the occupation but as I said before, they represent a hopeful sign because they establish mechanisms and institutions that will hopefully provide the basis for proper free and fair competitive elections.

In other words, parliamentary-type institutions and competitive elections, regardless of how phoney, are one of a country's features that allow us to determine whether the internal conditions for regime-change exist. With Iraq, the fact that all other possible mechanisms had been attempted and failed demonstrated that these internal conditions were absent, which was one of the reasons why I supported the war. Iran, in contrast, does have these - which is one of the reasons why I would not support externally imposed regime-change.

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