Wednesday, February 09, 2005

A Challenge, Part Deux

Lost in the kerfluffle over the exchanges between Juan Cole and Jonah Goldberg (here, here, here, here, here and here) has been a close examination of Cole's initial proposition, that the 1997 Iranian elections were "much more democratic" than the recent Iraqi elections. Of course, since Cole has focused on ad hominum attacks, rather than a reasoned argument, this is not surprising. Goldberg countered with a few cogent points, but Cole never returned the favor. So I thought I might try and return the fracas to its original point and issue another challenge (no, I don't know Arabic nor read extensively on Iraq, but as an American citizen, I like to think I know something about democracy).

This is how Cole puts the argument (which even Goldberg conceded was a "pretty good case," though not persuasive):

Goldberg criticizes me for saying that the 1997 presidential election in Iran was more democratic than the Jan. 30, 2005 election in Iraq. His complaint is that the four candidates for president were vetted and approved by Iran's Guardianship Council.
This seems like a rather good complaint. An election with pre-approved candidates is not exactly what we like to think of as democratic.

It is certainly the case that although Iran has elections, they are flawed because many candidates are excluded on ideological grounds. To say that, however, is not to say that the popular will can never unexpectedly make itself known in Iran. In the 1997 election the vetting was lax, and a relative liberal, Muhammad Khatami, was allowed to run. He had earlier been fired as minister of culture for being too liberal. He wrote about Habermas and civil society and democratization in Iran (he had lived in Germany several years and read Habermas in German).
At least Cole admits the obvious flaw in this system, but he excuses it by saying that the vetting was "lax." Somehow, that doesn't make me feel much better. Just because Khatami was a "relative liberal" does not change the fact that he was acceptable to the Mullahs, if perhaps not favored. And how do we know that the "popular will" was made known, since more liberal candidates were excluded? It is entirely reasonable to think that if given the option, the people might have voted for these candidates, yet the "popular will" was not allowed to exercise itself completely.

The four presidential candidates in Iran were all known by name, unlike the candidates for Iraq's parliament, most of whom remained anonymous to voters in the weeks leading up to the election. I'd say that is a sign of greater transparency in Iran. The Iranian participants were not in danger if they campaigned or ran, one of the criteria of a successful democratic election according to international watchdog groups. In this respect, too, Iran in that year was superior to Iraq in 2005.
The security concerns in Iraq certainly made for less than ideal circumstances, but one must remember that the election was for political parties in a proportional representation system. This means that people voted for parties, not candidates, which is a common system in Europe. True, it is normal for the parties to have publicly available lists of the candidates who will fill any seats they win, but the parties and their platforms were known. As for Iran, since they were pre-approved, who should the candidates be afraid of? Every controlled election in an autocratic state meets this criteria, by definition.

Khatami's victory in 1997 was a big surprise. He was put in by the youth vote and the women's vote, against the wishes of the hardline clerics. If a candidate wins who wasn't expected to, that is a sign of lack of manipulation of the results.
When you manipulate the input, who needs to manipulate the output? Khatami might not have been the favored candidate, but he met the threshold set by the ruling authority. Besides, as Goldberg pointed out, the Mullahs merely prevented Khatami from exercising any real authority. So what good was his election?

Khatami was elected by 69% of the Iranian electorate, and 76 percent of eligible voters voted. The latter number is higher than will be true for Iraq.
So? What is the relevance of turnout or size of victory? Saddam won with 100% of the vote. Was that more democratic than Iran?

In every way, from the transparency of candidates and platforms, to safe conditions for voters, to unexpected results, to the percentage of eligible voters who voted and the percentage of the electorate that directly chose Mr. Khatami, his election was more democratic than the elections just held in Iraq.
In every way? Generally, elections are considered valid if they are "free and fair." Iraq qualifies on both points, whereas Iran fails on both due to the prior screening of candidates and a controlled media. Cole has a point about security concerns and the anonymity of some candidates, which shows that the Iraqi elections were not perfect. But I would contend that an election open to any candidate and party trumps an election where only approved candidates can run, regardless of turnout or size of victory.

Now, using Cole's criteria for a democratic election, how would last November's U.S. election fare? As to percentage of electorate who voted, and size of victory, Iran beats the U.S. What about "unexpected" results? Since a vast majority of U.S. incumbents won at all levels, Iran beats us in this regard as well. Transparency of candidates is a wash, as well as safe voting conditions. So in three out of five criteria, Iran wins, and the other two are a tie. Therefore, Iran's elections were more democratic than ours!?!?

So my challenge to Prof. Cole is to defend the proposition that his criteria for a democratic election are valid, since it implies that Iran is more democratic than the U.S.

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