Even before Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei decided to throttle what little legitimacy was left of Iran’s “managed democracy,” it was a peculiar system, indeed. Although Iranian citizens had the right to elect their president, the candidates had to be vetted by the Council of Guardians, half of whom were picked by the unelected Supreme Leader.
The only candidates allowed to run were men with impeccable religious credentials, loyal to a regime whose most important decisions are made by unelected clerics. Mir-Hossein Mousavi, chosen by the late Ayatollah Khomeini to be prime minister in 1981, was such a figure.
Mousavi ran as a reformist who said he would strive for greater freedom of the press, more rights for women and fewer restrictions on the private lives of Iranians. He also hinted at more flexibility in negotiations with the US.
Yet Mousavi’s defeat by hardline Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in what looked like a rigged electoral process, was greeted by some neo-conservatives in the US with relief. One prominent commentator, Max Boot, took “some small degree of satisfaction from the outcome of Iran’s elections,” because US President Barack Obama would now find it harder to stand in the way of an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear installations. Since Iran is the enemy (remember former US president George W. Bush’s “axis of evil”?), it is better to deal with a president who talks and acts like a crazy thug than with a reasonable-sounding figure who promises reforms.
This would seem like the height of cynicism, which of course it is. It reminds us of the closeness, in spirit, between extreme neo-cons and communist ideologues. Compromise is anathema to the radical mind. Some radical leftist Muslims, obsessed with their opposition to Western “imperialism” and Israel, saluted Mousavi’s defeat, for, as one such activist put it, “the [anti-Zionist] resistance cannot afford a pro-American velvet revolution.”
Communists have always had a tendency to dismiss the differences between candidates in liberal democracies (let alone “managed” ones). They were just different faces of the same rotten system. In fact, social democrats were regarded as more dangerous than hardline conservatives, because their moderate left-wing talk only served to postpone the revolution. This kind of thinking helped the Nazis destroy German democracy in the 1930s.
The reaction of Boot, and others of his persuasion, points to a genuine dilemma that occurs in authoritarian systems that use some semblance of democracy to bolster their legitimacy. What are opposition candidates to do when they are asked to take part in elections that they know they cannot win, or that, even when they can win, will give them only minimal authority? If they agree, they help to legitimize a system in which they do not really believe. If they refuse, they have no influence at all.
There are valid arguments to be made for either course. Any chance for people to voice their views, even in rigged elections, is a good thing. And, because democracy is about institutions as much as about individual candidates, it is also good for citizens to exercise their right to vote. Then, when real change does occur, no one can claim that the people “are not ready for it.” Still, if voting confers dignity on citizens, participation in a fraud is humiliating.