The Globe and Mail: Better that voters stay home than endorse the country’s democratic facade, say freedom monitors: Iranian student leader Akbar Atri recently declared that “reform is dead” in his country. His pessimism is understandable. After eight years of futile attempts at democratic reform by the once popular President Mohammad Khatami, Iranians face a political moment as dark as any encountered during their
country’s 26 years of theocratic dictatorship.
The Globe and Mail
Better that voters stay home than endorse the country’s democratic facade
By THOMAS O. MELIA AND MARIAM MEMARSADEGHI
Better that voters stay home than endorse the country’s democratic facade, say freedom monitors
Iranian student leader Akbar Atri recently declared that “reform is dead” in his country. His pessimism is understandable. After eight years of futile attempts at democratic reform by the once popular President Mohammad Khatami, Iranians face a political moment as dark as any encountered during their country’s 26 years of theocratic dictatorship.
Tomorrow, Iranians will decide whether to vote in presidential elections that are fundamentally undemocratic. Akbar Ganji, a prominent Iranian journalist-turned-dissident, and other pro-democracy activists have called for a boycott of the election, citing, among other reasons, the disqualification of all but eight candidates from the 1,014 who applied to the Guardian Council for consideration. The Guardian Council, an unelected body of hard-line clerics, has systematically excluded from the running those who are not already part of Iran’s oppressive political establishment.
Those excluded include religious minorities and all 89 women candidates, an action that resulted this week in the first large-scale public demonstrations by women against the state since the forceful introduction of mandatory veiling in 1979. Furthermore, the two reformist presidential candidates – permitted to participate only after a dubiously charitable intervention by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – lack the political charisma of the outgoing President Mohammed Khatami.
Perhaps more important than the Guardian Council’s firm control over elections, however, is that the president (and the parliament) hold no real power. Even if fairly elected, the president would, according to Iran’s constitution, still be subservient to the will of the Velayat-e Faqih or Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. In fact, elections in Iran are nothing more than one of the regime’s most ingenious ways of maintaining a facade of democracy.
The regime’s hard work in maintaining this facade is why it has also craftily and patronizingly conceded the “right” of people to boycott elections. Never mind that elections in Iran are not monitored by domestic or international observers, and that voter turnout numbers can be inflated by the regime as it likes.
We live in an increasingly democratic world, where even tyrants are often required to go through the exercise of multicandidate and multiparty elections to preserve some pretense of domestic and international legitimacy. Calls for a boycott of the Iranian elections rest on popular hopes of shattering the regime’s facade of democratic legitimacy and (it is hoped) triggering a process that will eventually lead to genuine freedom. Those advocating this tactic have bravely and unambiguously expressed what it would signal: a rejection of the position of the Supreme Leadership and all the repressive machinations of the state which flow from it.
As the election draws near, the attention of the United States and the European Union have been focused almost entirely on Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Forgotten, for the moment at least, is the Iranian regime’s oppression of its people. Yet Iran’s policies of domestic repression should concern the international community as much as its nuclear aspirations.
Much greater external focus should therefore be placed on helping build the power of the Iranian people to achieve democracy.
In the last several years, we have seen movement towards democracy in countries such as Lebanon, Ukraine and Georgia. Experts had written off these countries as “stalled” authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes unlikely to see progress in democratization any time in the near future.
What we have learned from such countries is that popular civic forces can and will create possibilities for change when seemingly none exist. Any decisions concerning how best to deal with the Iranian regime should be formed with the understanding that in Iran, as in other countries that have recently experienced democratic breakthroughs, positive change is likely to be led by civic forces, not by the actions of government itself.
Our research indicates that the emergence of broadly-based, civic nonviolent coalitions have been the most effective mechanism for creating durable democracies during the past three decades – much more so than top-down, elite-driven transitions. The widely held proposition that change in the Middle East requires the support of unelected leaders such as Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei simply does not hold up.
Indeed, the kinds of tactics now being employed by Iran’s democratic forces – peaceful demonstrations by women’s rights advocates and the election boycott – have frequently served as the wedge for broad change in other authoritarian societies.
Increasingly, Iranian pro-democracy groups, particularly women and youth, are advancing strategies and tactics strikingly similar to those used successfully in places such as Lebanon, Ukraine and Georgia. As the world’s democracies contend with Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, they should also give their attention, and support to Iran’s pro-democracy movement and its nonviolent civic mobilization tactics, starting with the call for an election boycott.
Thomas O. Melia is deputy executive director of Freedom House, a non-governmental organization that monitors political rights and civil liberties worldwide. Mariam Memarsadeghi is senior program manager in the Middle East and North Africa department. For further information see the report How Freedom is Won: From Civic Struggle to Durable Democracy.