Once upon a time, “democracy” was a synonym for motherhood and apple pie, a thing of unchallengeable value. More recently, the word has lost its luster. The Bush administration spoke a lot about democracy in principle but found democratic ideas, not to mention democratic institutions, hard to promote in practice. Worse, some of its efforts had unsatisfactory results. Elections the United States wanted in Palestine led to the victory of Hamas. In Iraq, elections organized with U.S. assistance produced a weak and divided government at a time when strength and unity were required. Meanwhile, authoritarian regimes in Russia, Central Asia and elsewhere spent the past decade learning to manipulate elections, giving themselves bogus legitimacy and producing a new form of “managed democracy”: Authoritarianism camouflaged in democratic rhetoric.
The result: A backlash, if not exactly against democracy, then against its promotion. In part because it intuitively disdains anything President Bush admired, in part because it doubts the efficacy, the Obama administration has deliberately stayed away from the whole idea of promoting democracy in general and elections in particular. In discussing Afghanistan, it initially spoke about “clear and attainable goals,” not democracy. In his Cairo speech, President Obama himself — speaking to an audience that included Egypt’s undemocratic leaders — prefaced his short comments on democracy with the enthusiasm-killing phrase, “I know there has been much controversy . . . .” Within the White House and State Department, I am reliably informed, jobs with “democracy promotion” in the title are not eagerly sought after.
Which leaves us, however, with the peculiar conundrum of Iran. For Iran is a classic example of managed democracy — if it can be called a democracy at all. Iranians are not guaranteed freedom of speech or of the press. Political parties are heavily restricted. A small group of unelected clerics holds a monopoly on real political power, supervising elections as well as candidates. The latter can be rejected for belonging to the wrong religious group, for “indecent acts” or simply for failing to participate in Friday prayers with sufficient enthusiasm. Over-enthusiastic campaigners can be beaten up by police patrols, and in recent weeks some were. The central purpose of elections is not to choose a president — that is generally done in advance — but to reinforce the clerics’ candidate’s dubious legitimacy. For that reason, Iranian dissidents, both in and outside the country, usually call upon their supporters to boycott elections altogether.
And yet — the elections Iran held Friday also proved just how powerful, and how ultimately uncontrollable, even the most heavily managed elections can be. Iran’s elections might not have been free or fair but they did, as an Iranian friend of mine put it, expose a “serious factional divide that could not be dealt with behind the closed doors of the ruling oligarchy.” They might not have presented society with two radically different candidates (Mir Housein Mousavi, the “reformer” in this election, presided over the mass murder of political prisoners when he was prime minister in the 1980s), but merely allowing the public the chance to vote against the current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, inspired the largest turnout anyone can remember. The press might not have been able to report everything that happened, but Iranians did attend electoral events in unprecedented numbers, hissing and cheering. The votes might not have been counted correctly, but the whiff of fraud has sparked the biggest wave of demonstrations Iranians have seen for a decade.
Yes, this was a highly managed, deeply illiberal election, and it didn’t even change the composition of the Iranian government: After all that, Ahmadinejad is still president. But the voting process did open a crack where none had existed, the possibility of choice did inspire what had seemed a passive society to protest, the campaign rallies allowed people to shout political slogans in front of the police without the police reacting. One could argue — and many Iranians do — that the poll was farcical. But Iran goes to show that a bad election is better than none at all.
And what next? As I write, the Internet rumor mill says that Mousavi is under arrest. By next week, he may be president — or he may be in prison. But that, too, is the point: The impact of democracy — even halfway, tentative, incomplete democracy — is unpredictable. Which is of course why dictators try to control it in the first place.