Read more of Slate's coverage of Iran's June 12 election and its aftermath.
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. 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 Russian, Central Asian, and other regimes spent the last decade learning how to manipulate elections, giving themselves bogus legitimacy and producing a new form of "managed democracy": authoritarianism camouflaged in democratic rhetoric.
The result was a backlash—if not exactly against democracy, then against its promotion. In part because they intuitively disdain anything that President George W. Bush admired, in part because they doubt its efficacy, the Obama administration has quite deliberately stayed away from the whole idea of promoting democracy in general and elections in particular. In discussing Afghanistan, they initially spoke about "clear and attainable goals," not democracy. In his Cairo speech, President Barack 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. …" I am reliably informed that within the White House and State Department, jobs with "democracy promotion" in the title are not eagerly sought after.
Which leaves us 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. Overzealous 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 dubious legitimacy of the clerics' chosen candidate. For that reason, Iranian dissidents, both inside and outside the country, usually call upon their supporters to boycott elections altogether.
And yet—the elections Iran held June 12 also proved just how powerful, and just 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 Hossein 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 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 anyone has 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 before, the possibility of choice did inspire what had seemed to be a passive society to protest, and 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.
What comes 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.