Iran and the Dilemma of Democracy

The only significance of the events in Iran is the proof that when it comes to politics even Ayatollah’s cheat. Otherwise, everything remains the same.

But the proof is of immense significance because it demolishes some strongly held beliefs about religion and democracy. Think about it. If those whose vocation it is to tell the truth, who insist they represent God’s will on earth, who claim they will have to answer to God for their doings in this world, if even they have been forced to cheat, something very compelling must be going on.

But whatever it is, it is not new. Let us begin from the beginning.

Democracy is about the will of the people determining who is to govern them and how they are to be governed. It is about public opinion being the determinant of public policy. But what happens when public opinion demands public policies that are contrary to the interests of those who govern them – when the will of the people is opposed to the will of the rulers?

This is by no means a new dilemma. Here is Aristotle (384-322 BC) talking about it in his Politics. Of the systems of governance he had studied, Aristotle considered democracy “the most tolerable.” But he was aware that the poor “covet their neighbors’ goods” and if wealth were narrowly concentrated, they would use their majority power to redistribute it more equitably.

James Madison, one of the framers of the American Constitution, argued that people “without property, or the hope of acquiring it, cannot be expected to sympathize sufficiently” with the interests that represented the “wealth of the nation.” From recent times, let us just quote Richard Holbrooke simply because he presently holds such a critical assignment related to South Asia. This is what he said with reference to the Yugoslavia of the 1990s: “Suppose elections are free and fair and those elected are racists, fascists, separatists — that is the dilemma.”

The bottom line is that a lot is at stake in elections and given all the experience it is naïve to think that all it takes for the will of the people to prevail is for it to be expressed. The high sounding tributes paid to democracy by its champions turn out to be quite hollow when matched up against their actions.

As is being witnessed in Iran today, the maintenance of any status quo requires the exclusion from the political arena of groups with incompatible interests. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century in the now developed countries this was accomplished by restricting the suffrage (see the earlier post on the history of democracy). Remember that even Aristotle was talking about a limited democracy of free men – slaves did not get the vote till quite recently even in America. In the twentieth century (and continuing into the twenty-first) elections in developing countries continue to be rigged, bought, stolen or nullified with a frequency that should leave little doubt about the systemic nature of the phenomenon. Pakistanis need think no further than the year 1971 that has been brushed out of all history books.

As if this were not enough, the will of the people in our times faces daunting challenges not just at home but also from abroad. This is not the first time that an election is being stolen in Iran. Only American citizens remain uninformed of what happened in 1953. And that was not an aberration: leave aside Chile (known in Latin America as the first 9/11) and the banana republics of Central America, the US government has even intervened in elections in Greece and Italy during the 1960s. There is need to ask the question: Why? Why has even the American government been so scared of democracy? And why does it desire democracy in Iraq but not in Saudi Arabia?

So, as we said before, something very profound must be at stake that calls for a continuous fear of the will of the people, its frustration at every opportunity, and such selectivity in where it might be acceptable. At the very least it should be clear that democracy is not as welcome to the powers that be as it is made out to be – the myth that any election will usher in the will of the people (even when divinely ordained Ayatollahs are in charge) needs to be put to rest.

Democracy has to be won; whatever rights people have anywhere in the world today are the results of bitter struggles – ask the Blacks in America, ask the women in England. The elimination of child labor, the limitation of the workweek, the right to form unions, the right to safe work places, the right to a minimum wage – all these have been the outcomes of protracted struggle.

The fight of the Iranian people is symptomatic of this struggle for democracy that has gone on for more than two centuries. While we support this struggle, we should also reflect on what our strategies need to be to ensure that the voices of the people are heard, that the will of the people prevails, and that public opinion determines public policy. We need to focus on specific rights (education, clean water, housing, employment, justice, peace, equality of opportunity, fair distribution of wealth, a voice in the allocation of resources) and strengthen the forces that would help wrest these rights, one at a time if necessary, from those who are determined not to concede them.

Even if they are Ayatollahs.

This is the link to an important speech (May 2010) by Akbar Ganji on behalf of the Green Movement in Iran.


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