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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9 Responses to “Iran and the Dilemma of Democracy”

  1. Arun Pillai Says:

    This is a truly excellent and exemplary piece. You have given recent events the right context of democracy worldwide and through history rather than something narrower.

    How would you answer the question you have yourself raised in quoting Holbrooke – can the will of the people ever be “undemocratic”? Is this a flaw in democracy?

    It is worth reading Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” in this connection as it could well have been called “The Election.”

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun, The will of the people cannot be “undemocratic” by definition but it can certainly be problematic. This is the tension at the heart of democratic governance. Tocqueville, and Enlightenment thinkers before him, were all concerned about the potential of despotism in democratic governance.

      What I admired in Aristotle’s articulation of the problem was the solution that he suggested. Having speculated that the poor “covet their neighbors’ goods,” he concluded that if wealth was narrowly concentrated, they would use their majority to redistribute it more equitably. He then moves to the issue of political and social order and poses the other side of the conundrum: “In democracies the rich should be spared; not only should their property not be divided, but their incomes too… should be protected…”

      Note now the inclination of his thought: “Great then is the good fortune of a state in which the citizens have a moderate and sufficient property; for where some possess much, and others nothing, there may arise an extreme democracy.”

      So the core issue remains the same but while most people right up to modern times have been trying to find a way out by restricting democracy, Aristotle’s advice was to reduce inequality. He argued that for democracy to function properly “measures therefore should be taken which will give [all people] lasting prosperity.”

      I guess that is the best one can do – take away the conditions that could give rise to expressions of “extreme” democracy.

  2. Are religion and democracy compatible? « BBC World Have Your Say Says:

    […] SouthAsian believes that what’s happened in Iran crushes the idea that religion and democracy can ever be compatible… Can you ever be a true democracy if religion rules? […]

    This reference to our article is from a comment on a BBC blog. I am posting it because it misinterprets the key point of our article.

    The point we made was not about religion. It was to suggest that we examine more closely the tensions at the heart of democratic governance. In unequal or oppressive societies, the “will of the people” can be expected to demand change. And the beneficiaries of the unequal distribution can be expected to resist that change. Therefore, we can expect to see repeated attempts to frustrate the will of the people.

    The reference to Iran and religion was to reinforce this point. We felt it proved the argument when even a religious authority ostensibly dedicated to truth could be seen to cheat to deny the will of the people.

    It is of interest to see the methods that have been used to subvert the democratic verdict in a historical perspective. As we mentioned in the article, in many places the extent of the suffrage was restricted for a long time; in others, more blatant rigging or manipulation has been used. But there are also more sophisticated means that can be employed: public opinion itself can be shaped in particular ways by using disinformation, lies, or scare tactics. Recall the weapons of mass destruction and Al-qaeda links in Iraq and the “Islam in Danger” bogey in Pakistan.

    Whether religion is (or can be) compatible with democracy is a completely different question that we have not addressed in our article.

    On another point, I find it intriguing how easily people can read completely different meanings into a text. I suppose, people approach a text with an opinion already in mind and the text seems to confirm their beliefs. This is quite scary and should alert us that we need to be a lot more careful to avoid these kinds of biased interpretations.

    I found this is a recent interview:

    “People don’t always… pay attention…. Instead of responding to what you are saying, they respond to what they assumed you were going to say. An example: somebody is sitting at a desk. You borrow a stapler, bring it back and put it back on the desk. He or she is assuming that you are going to say thank you for the stapler but, instead, you say, “It’s out of staples.” The person at the desk responds, “You’re welcome.” They operated on their assumption instead of what was actually said.”

  3. Arun Pillai Says:

    I agree with what you say but I was thinking of a different problem not related to economic inequality. Holbrooke talks about electing a fascist. What if a majoritarian government was elected that persecuted the minorities? By definition, the will of the people based on most electoral systems worldwide would not offer a minority the right kind of protection. Of course, the law itself would constrain any government from extreme types of persecution but what about softer forms of discrimination that are harder to legislate (e.g. economic and social ostracism as has been prevalent in Gujarat in recent times)?

    I had put “undemocratic” in quotes to avoid the outright contradiction with “the will of the people.” The fact is we use “democracy” in multiple ways: as expressing the will of the people but also as “unfascist.” The problem appears to be that you can have one attribute without the other.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun, This is a problem that is not peculiar to democracy. It can occur in any system and it is in that perspective that democracy is often called the “least worst” alternative.

      I think the critical point to be kept in mind is how a society arrives at democracy – a point we stressed in our series on modernity. In Europe, exhaustion with the persecution of religious minorities and familiarity with the notion of social equality preceded the introduction of democartic governance. It was a different starting point. Thus one sees the kind of persecution you mention only as an aberration (e.g., persecution of the Jews by the Germans).

      When a colonial country inherits democarcy without a preceding social awakening, we continue to see the old patterns in new guises. You have already mentioned Gujarat. One can add the persecution of the Ahmadis in Pakistan and many other examples.

      The only way out is to push for legislation that takes a very strong stand against discrimination of any kind. In an earlier post we had mentioned that this was the fascinating aspect of the democratic experiment in India – all these battles have now to be fought through the ballot box. The historical experience has been stood on its head.

  4. Anil Kala Says:

    Excuse me if I am ill informed but I can’t comprehend how the election in Iran has been stolen? Is it just because there are some very noisy demonstrations taking place in Tehran?

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Anil, There is no hard proof. The fact that the results were declared so quickly when the ballots were supposed to be counted manually raises suspicions. The authorities have also acknowledged that the number of votes cast in 50 cities exceeded the number of actual voters in those cities.

      It seems clear that someone is definitely trying to manipulate the results – if it is not those inside, it must be those who are outside. The point remains that most of the time there is some force or the other that has an interest in frustrating the will of the people.

  5. Brian Larson Says:

    Thank you for wonderful articles, and quoting the often-neglected Madison, the main creator of the US system of checks and balances on power (which needs dramatic updating, IMHO, in my humble opinion).
    IMHO, democracy is far more than casting a vote. In elections, people can be swayed by false promises, paranoia, and panic. Elections are often purchased. As Jesse Unruh, a California politician once said, “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.” Sadly, this is true. Serving on a jury, communicating, living your life responsibly, charitably towards others, trying to help, are more important. A vote is a mass event, singular, where a person’s input is limited.
    Democracy requires respecting the right of others to voice their thoughts and opinions openly and freely without fear of retribution, and a legal system that supports these basic rights. It is this constant interchange of ideas and choices, political and economic that helps humankind to progress. Open exposure, however embarrassing, is needed, as is patience. Eventually, bad ideas, horrendous policies, and poor leaders are weeded out, ferreting out mistakes. Even a blind man, eventually, will make it out of a labyrinth.
    I hope the Iranian people see that elections are one time events, often purchased and false. One cartoon-ish politician replacing another. Not worth the martyrdom of one young life. I worry that many are going to lose their lives and health in the heat of the day’s moment. The larger protracted struggle is for openness, honesty and that the Iranian people have already won. It is just a matter of time until the voices are heard. I am old enough to see that things work this way, albeit slowly, but surely.
    Ment most gently and kindly,

  6. captainjohann Says:

    Hi south asian,
    You have very correctly said Democracy can be problemetic as in Gaza for super powers. In Iran it is problemetaic for the Mullahs because they donot know how to handle educated youth who love western way of life while they know it is against Sharia.But i think the villagers and uneducated who consitute majority voted for Ahmedijinad.

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