Defining democracy: Well, at least America is more democratic than Russia or Iran

March 7, 2012 6:57 am

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Five important countries -- France, Iran, Mexico, Russia and the United States -- hold elections this year; each will say they are democratic.

Two have taken place. Iran held parliamentary elections Friday. Russia held presidential elections Sunday. The United States is already into the weeds of its campaigns, even though the elections aren't until November.

Iran's elections are better described as contested, rather than democratic.

First, all candidates must be vetted by a council of ayatollahs. This means that any potential candidate who might be considered disruptive to the smooth functioning of the country's theocratic system cannot even make it onto the ballot. (According to Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, based on his view of the separation between church and state, John F. Kennedy should not have made it past even this first barrier in the United States.)

Second, Iran does not have political parties. We can put aside the question of whether America's experience with parties justifies Iran's practice in that regard, but what it means is that candidates in Iran are divided into factions on the basis of their loyalty to either an approach or to an individual politician. This time it was "the principalists," supporters of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, opposed to those who line up with President Mahmoud Ahmahdinejad. Iran's populist Green Movement, which emerged badly damaged from the 2009 presidential elections, stayed out.

The supreme leader's supporters appear to have won big, to the extent that Mr. Khamenei is thinking of using his large majority in parliament to abolish the office of president altogether, making the head of government a prime minister elected by parliament, which he will control.

Now, does this make Iran a flexible democracy, or a theocratic dictatorship posing as a democracy, or what? It's probably as close to representative, participatory government as Iran is going to get for now. And it is lively.

Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a Post-Gazette associate editor (, 412 263-1976).
First Published 2012-03-07 05:57:40

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