Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Iran and the power of democracy

The turmoil in Iran demonstrates the power of democracy. I appreciate there are a number of good reasons to treat this proposition with scepticism.

The first, and most important, is that the Iranian electoral system seems to fail the most rudimentary democratic test in that it doesn't even serve as a mechanism for choosing the people who actually rule the country.

Furthermore, the electoral game that elects a President and a parliament with theocratically circumscribed powers is itself somewhat limited. The last time this was achieved was by barring candidates with reformist credentials. In this case it seems that the counting of votes itself was the subject of fraud.

Then there is the point that Mir-Hossein Mousavi is not a worthy repository for dissent against the regime. His previous political form was not distinguished by its liberalism nor its toleration of dissent and there was little in his election platform to suggest that a Mousavi Presidency would have meant anything more than cosmetic changes to the face that the Islamic Republic presented to both its citizens and the rest of the world.

I would agree with all of these yet still maintain that the recent events in Iran illustrate the power of democracy. The first reason is that I think all the talk of 'sham-elections' that provide a facade for dictatorship omits an important question: why do dictatorships feel the need to provide such a cloak of legitimacy to their rule in the first place? This in and of itself is a testimony to the historic success of representative democracy as well as an indictment of the alternatives. Fans of relativism - most recently Peter Beaumont with his use of the 'western-style' dismissive - never seem to consider what alternative forms of regime-legitimisation exist in this world of ours, what they look like, how effective are they, how just are they.

We could put non-representative regimes into three broad categories: there are dictatorships that base their legitimacy on hereditary; there are still those that base it on a revolutionary ideology; and there are those that use sheer brute force to maintain rule. Obviously two or more of these overlap in a number of regimes throughout the world and if you want an example of one where all three are mixed together in one demented pazzy-package, there's always North Korea as a beacon of 'non-Western' regime legitimisation.

All three exist in the Islamic Republic of Iran too - and this is what makes it an interesting case. Eric Hobsbawm remarked that the Iranian revolution of 1979 was the first since the 18th century that did not have Enlightenment principles at the core of its revolutionary ideology. It created a regime with profound internal contradications: one where a theocracy has to be seen, in some measure at least, to be built on popular consent. Hence the need for elections, however superficial and ritualistic.

But this is my second reason for arguing for the power of democracy. Sham elections and emasculated parliaments have a habit of gaining a life and assuming a role that exceeds the intention of their creators. Consider the Duma, created as a fig-leaf for Romanov imperial power but which outlived not only them but the USSR itself.

Something like this is happening in Iran today. But I'd predict that this will end more like Tiananmen than any 'Velvet revolution' for the simple reason that for the latter to happen, regimes have to lose either the will, ability or technological superiority to inflict extreme violence on their subjects. I don't see any sign of this happening in Iran yet. (All these 'leftists' talking about how the opposition shouldn't be supported because it only represents a 'split amongst the ruling classes' - as if there was ever a revolution where this didn't take place!) I would, however, argue that the routinisation of democratic practice in Iran has created a dynamic that the regime cannot hope to control in the long run. I'd also argue that this is likely to end in only two ways: revolution or war. Surely not only those on the left would wish it to be the former rather than the latter - and sooner rather than later?

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