Dictatorships – such as the theocracy in Iran - claim to hold genuine elections BUT manipulate and distort them instead, which imposes fraudulent results that create fictitious consent. In such instances, elections are not signs of democracy, but rather serve as a facade to mask authoritarian political structures. Where democratic institutions are weak, elections are easily used by violent and dictatorial political groups to manipulate the will of the people and seize control of the government.
But what are we talking about when we say democratic institutions? What institutions?
What I have learnt is that wherever there is central control of elections, manipulation by one party is easy to achieve. The key to better democracy is a set of de-centralization of election boards or controls.
In the U.S. for example, each region has its own election boards. If for any reason, and it is actually commonly the case, that one party manipulates a local election board for its own benefit, candidates are able to resort to “out of district” courts to straighten things out. And in many cases, complaints have traversed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The ability to challenge a local ruling out of state – is key! It’s critical. The federal system becomes a check and balance on the local systems and vice-a-versa.
To establish a decent system, you have to assume that people will NOT play fair. The addiction to power is toxic and players will do anything to win. The key is for the system to be so decentralized that no-one controls winners and losers on a national scale. That is the key to real democracy. These are the institutions that matter.
We see time and time again, in the U.S. no less – how one political party tries and even succeeds in manipulating a local electoral condition – only to be either challenged in court (and have to reverse their actions) or succeed but lose out on the national scale with the over whelming number of votes going to the other party. Look at how the Republican Party in Florida tried to limit early voting, or even voting hours, or even voting districts, or even voting machines. People were standing in line for 6 hours to vote in many democratic districts because the state election board purposely wanted to dissuade democrats from voting. They even tried to disqualify African-Americans and remove them from voting rolls. But in the end, the Democrats won Florida, and even better yet won the national vote. Republicans could manipulate one area – but could not manipulate the whole country. That is the key. The system has to be decentralized to work.
Even for the Presidential elections, i.e. national office, a candidate must qualify locally i.e. in each state to run. No central board dictates who is eligible or not.
So how would that play out in Iran?
First, of all the ministry of the interior would not supervise ALL elections nationally. This is a fundamental flaw to Iran’s electoral system.
Secondly, eligibility to participate in elections would not be established centrally. This again is a fundamental flaw to Iran’s electoral system.
For democracy to work, everyone must agree to accept the results of freely held elections. The people and parties, who have lost power, or those who failed to gain it, must be willing to accept defeat. If the loser refuses to accept the winner, the election's legitimacy is diminished and the political system may be marked by conflict and instability. This is a fundamental test that Iran has failed time and time again.
As Iran’s parliament meets to discuss electoral reform this week, they are purposely forgetting the real key to democracy which is a decentralized system.
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