Iran’s Peculiar Election: A Historical Perspective

Issue Date October 2005
Volume 16
Issue 4
Page Numbers 23-34
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In the present age of democracy, ideas about the “social contract” and the natural rights of citizens have become, much to the consternation of despots, indispensable elements of the common political discourse. Autocrats of different hue and heft—from totalitarian tyrants like Stalin to authoritarian despots like the shah—must pay lip service to the idea of popular elections, incorporating it into their countries’ political practices. Employing a combination of force and chicanery, money and muscle, they deform elections into an empty but expedient gesture of public diplomacy, intended largely for consumption abroad, and not for registering and implementing what Rousseau called “the general will.” In nondemocratic countries, elections become an instrument for validating the self-serving political designs of the despotic elite. The tortured political history of the twentieth century has shown that elections, rather than being a guarantor of democracy, are merely a necessary tool for democracy—and then only if they are genuinely free and fair.

About the Author

Abbas Milani is director of the Hamid and Christina Moghadam Program in Iranian Studies and a visiting professor of political science at Stanford University. In addition, he is a research fellow and codirector of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution.

View all work by Abbas Milani