The latest results from Iran’s recent presidential election featured Mir Hossein Moussavi, the primary opposition candidate, in a disappointing and suspicious loss to incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad, considered by many Iranians to be at fault for the years of economic instability during his presidency, enjoys staunch support from rural communities and is to some an enemy of the wealthy and “champion of the poor.” In contrast, Moussavi is believed to be a more moderate candidate, advocating greater cooperation internationally and engagement with the United States. While Moussavi was predicted to win by the vast majority of Iranian media, his loss is suspicious due to large number of what are being referred to as irregularities.
Even before polls had closed Moussavi condemned the election as unfair. Within hours, the United States and Canada both expressed “concern” over the potentially unfair nature of the elections. From the amount of skepticism both inside and outside the state of Iran regarding the elections it’s fairly clear that something at least marginally democratically improper occurred.
Thinking critically, the important outcome of the election is not a presidential candidate, but the progress of Iranian democratic values, the traditional precursor to democratic institutions. After election results were announced Iranians gathered in Tehran and chanted “Death to the Dictatorship,” and Mousavi supporters conducted sit-ins. While most gatherings were peaceful, some turned violent involving clashes with the police and burning buses. With Iranians who publicly denounce the government often disappearing, this is an intriguing turn of events.
All governments rule through a combination of legitimacy and coercion. No state exists solely through either legitimacy or coercion, but rather through a combination of the two. Generally, the more coercion required to maintain state control the more unstable that state becomes. (An example of this could be the Soviet Union’s control over the Warsaw Pact, as legitimacy of the Communist ideology eroded it became increasingly necessary to execute coercive control over the Warsaw pact countries, In 1991 Gorbachev refused to use the necessary force to retain Soviet control and the Warsaw Pact disbanded.)
Iranian elections began, with relatively little at stake, as a means to create a more legitimate form of government. (It remains unclear how much power the elected executive branch truly has, and all candidates must be cleared by the Supreme Council before being allowed to run) This week’s election may symbolize a turning point in Iranian politics. The population is becoming so upset over the potential irrelevance of their vote that in order to restore order and stability the government will have two options for future elections; choose to conduct fairer and freer elections (a turn towards more legitimate rule), or choose to continue elections with predetermined results, a turn towards greater coercive rule. Although one is clearly favorable, either outcome could prove positive in the long-run. Less legitimacy domestically generally translates to less legitimacy internationally, and the Iranian regime appearing illegitimate would be useful for creating international support to slow or stop a proliferating Iran. In contrast, a free and democratic Iran would surely translate positively for US-Iranian relations.
The evolution of the Iranian political system to a point where an inherent assumption exists that the will of the majority creates legitimacy is far more encouraging than the election of a moderate on what is a very limited political spectrum.
I conclude with a statement one voter made to the Tehran Times following the election:
Despite all the country’s problems over the years, we see that the culture of democracy is beginning to take root in Iran, and the people are becoming confident that they can control their destiny by casting ballots. And the people are happy. These are good signs that augur well for the future.