Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Death to America vs. America is the Great Satan

So, Iran is having its presidential elections on June 12, 2009. As the title to this post indicates, let's not kid ourselves about what the difference is between a "reformer" and a "conservative." Neither is pro-western. Both are going to be as hostile to the US as, say, both Dems and Republicans were hostile to the USSR during the Cold War. Still, the word today is that powerful conservative groups are joining to back Mousavi, a reformist candidate, in order to defeat Ahmadinejad. The current president, Ahmadinejad, is viewed increasingly in many quarters as someone taking Iran down paths they do not wish to go.

What Iranians of most political stripes probably do not want is a return to the 1980s, when Iran was a pariah state within the middle east as well as the rest of the world. It's not that the "hardliners" (so called) are no longer Islamic radicals. But they see that, without Bush as a foil, the role of agent provacateur may be more costly than beneficial. Why? Cynically, they are looking forward to the expansion of their power in Iraq (with US departure imminent). Why not enjoy the expanded power and influence in the region? Why encourage an anti-Iranian alliance throughout the region? Perhaps it has occurred to them that their neighbors feel as threatened by the possibility of nukes as the USA, and that they would have more influence if they didn't go down that route. Also, they are now treated to the prospect of the might of US force finally being brought down against their archenemy, the radical Sunni Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Put another way, in large part due to the Bush administration's ineptness, Iran has been handed the possibility of being a powerful regional player. It may just prefer that role to being an oriental version of Castro or, worse, Hugo Chavez.

Still, it is worth remarking on the fact that this is a political process with rules of a sort, not democratic to be sure, but not merely despotic or dictatorial either. Iran is more politically developed in terms of competitive or transparent political institutions than China. Think about that for a minute. Unlike the Arab states that languished for centuries under foreign rule (Ottoman or European), Persia had and has a stronger and more robust political and civic culture. There is some reason to hope that Iran can transition to a more stable and more agreeable political system over time, and I applaud this administration for returning to the Clinton-era policy of limited engagement, not merely containment.


Raised By Republicans said...

Yes, Iran is deceptively close to becoming a fully fledged democracy. But there are institutional features that act to prevent real competition and would probably require a new constitution for true democratization. There is a council of religious authorities that effectively has a veto over policy and in the event that other legislative bodies disagree, this council acts as a kind of unilateral conference committee.

China I think is institutionally closer "as is" but, like LTG says, doesn't have quite the civil society traditions. That, however, is changing rapidly. Neighborhood and village organizations are sprouting up like mushrooms all over China. Many of these groups are involved in property rights issues and environmental issues.

If I had to bet on which of the two countries would have genuinely competitive elections first, I'd bet on China. But Iran is far closer to genuine democratization than any other country in the Middle East.

The Law Talking Guy said...

I'm not sure why you think the Communists would surrender power in China - when they are paranoid about any dissent. Iran is already past the one-party thing. Its religious veto will be easier to dismember, because those people (to be frank) still have jobs if they lose some political power.

Pombat said...

The Communists aren't going to surrender power in China. They're going to - eventually - be very messily toppled, thanks to all those 'mushrooms' popping up everywhere finally getting to a critical mass and forcing the change. I'd like to think that by the time the critical mass is reached, China's leadership will be such that they will look at the country and decide to facilitate the change, but to be honest, something akin to Tiananmen - albeit on a much larger scale - seems more likely to me (but with lots of eventual dissent from the armed forces, sickened at orders to kill their own people, with this dissent eventually finishing the civil war).

Iran seems to be flirting with democracy, but is definitely playing very hard to get.

Raised By Republicans said...

The Communists are no longer a monolithic party (if they ever were). That party is riddled with factions with different positions on a variety of issues. All that needs to happen for China to have genuinely competitive elections that mater will be for some of those factions to start competing against each other in elections. The Chinese constitution already has institutions in place to accommodate that should it ever happen - mind you, I don't think it will happen next week or something. But my point is that democratization in China could very well emerge gradually and without much in the way of a spectacular revolutionary moment.

Iran in contrast, has several institutions embedded in its constitution that are fundamentally incompatible with any further democratization than already exists in Iran. The Supreme Leader office is a theocratic position that functions as head of government and head of the religious activities in the country. He is a cleric appointed by a council of 86 other clerics. He appoints a number of executive offices, including the Defense Minister. He also appoints the membership of two other bodies (half of the Guardian Council and all of the Expediency Council) both of which have the official power to supersede the authority of the elected legislature. There can be no more democratization in Iran so long as these three institutions (Supreme Leader, Guardian Council, Expediency Council) exist.

This doesn't mean that Iran won't ever move forward but it does mean that such progress would require a complete dismantling of the current constitution. That would probably require at least the neutrality of the military in the face of some kind of revolution. Which could happen. Stranger things do happen all the time. But, for those reasons, if you made me bet on which country would democratize first, my money would be on China - for now.

The Law Talking Guy said...

RBR - I understand the argument about institutional structure, but I think you are mistaking the structure in China. China is a one-party state, period, just like it was in 1949 and 1989, just like the USSR and North Korea were and are. Minor experimentation at the local level is not all that relevant. The USSR had a nifty constitution too that was also just for show. I dispute the notion that the party is riddled with disagreement. If so, it is not public. China is extremely repressive and monolithic.

Institutions such as those extra religious bodies with vetos can become like an appendix, however. The House of Lords and the Monarchy are inherently undemocratic but of course Britain has multiparty democracy although these institutions remain. Institutions do not have to be dismantled, merely sidelined.
In the USA, we have seen the electoral college become just an appendix on the system - that happened within a decade or so of the founding. The senate originally represented state governments; now it is just another elected legislative body with unequal districts. This change was almost uneventful in 1913 (17th amend - direct election of senators).

What matters more, I think, is the fact that patronage and policy in Iran are now up for public political contest. Iran can - potentially - slide to more democratization as legitimacy drains from the unelected bodies with veto power and they gradually recede to ceremonial functions. In fact we have seen in Iran over the past 20 years the separation between religious and secular authorities grow and power shift to secular authorities. At some point, when politics permit it, the secular authorities will defy the religious authorities and win. That will set a precedent for more such victories. Soon, predictably, the sphere of religious authorities to intervene will be restricted to 'religious' matters. And that sphere will retreat. There are parallels of a kind elsewhere. Israel has a supreme orthodox rabbinate (unelected) that decides a great deal of family law for all Jews. It knows its place, however. That could happen to Iran's authorities over time. Being unelected, they are inherently at a disadvantage to elected politicians, in that they naturally lack the political sense to know when to strike and do not have their fingers on the public pulse. They do not because they do not need to.

Raised By Republicans said...

Here I think you are over estimating the extent of the single party structure of China and under estimating the centrality of the Supreme Leader, Guardian Council and Expediency Council to Iran's current constitution.

China does in fact have parties in place other than the Communists. In this they are more like Poland under Soviet domination and less like North Korea. The problem now is that these small tolerated parties are controlled by the Communists through practice but this control is not established in the constitution. All that needs to happen is for the Chinese to change their practices not their constitution.

Iran in contrast has to eliminate two of the three legislative institutions and one of the two executive institutions. That can't be done they the British just started ignoring the House of Lords. The "sphere" of religious authority is not the issue. The constitution of Iran gives the Supreme Leader extensive legislative powers. That can't simply wither away while maintaining that office. What we have seen recently in Iran is a significant moderation of policy. It is important but it should not be seen as a trend that will or even can continue as it has thus far to get where we all hope Iran will end up.

Besides, I'd remind LTG that the dominance of the House of Commons in England was established only through a prolonged civil war and the execution of the King.

The Law Talking Guy said...

I really do think that the Iranian situation is less monolithic than China in practice, and you are fixating on formalities rather than real facts. It's just impossible to imagine China having anything like the current set of presidential or (last year) regional elections as they are having in Iran. The rulers will not stand for election in this manner.

But of course neither system is democratizing in our lifetimes, that's for sure.

Raised By Republicans said...

"and you are fixating on formalities rather than real facts"

LTG, these "formalities" are part and parcel with reality. They constrain it's possibilities. They can even dictate outcomes.

You can't just wave your hand and dismiss as a mere "formality" a constitutionally established Supreme Leader, chosen by an unelected body of men representing a very narrowly defined religious interest group (also constitutionally established), who has a strangle hold on policy and dominates the legislative process either directly or indirectly AND controls the top leadership of the military.

Its one thing for a country with no written constitution to transform institutions easily and flexibly it's quite another for a country with a written constitution to start selectively ignoring large and important parts of it.

I'm not saying that everyone in Iran LIKES this situation. I am not suggesting that popular support for these institutions is universal or even representing a majority of people.

I am saying that if they want to progress much further down the path to democratization than they have it will take either a constitutional convention (unlikely) or some kind of revolution complete with people demonstrating in the streets and hopefully not but possibly with considerable violence.

I'm not the only one who argues this. There is a broad consensus among researchers of democratization that institutions (what LTG calls "formalities") are a critical element in the process of democratization and in the survivability of new democracies.