The Iranian elections: is democracy viral?

Iranian election protestorsThe past weekend’s hot news story is still smouldering strongly today: the Iranian elections (and the resulting landslide victory for incumbent president Ahmadinejad) have resulted in accusations of vote fraud (which isn’t entirely surprising) and street riots and protests from supporters of the principle opposition candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi. Throw in some state censorship in the form of social networking websites and text messaging services being blocked, and you’ve got a story that’s not entirely unfamiliar in recent years. [image by Shahram Sharif]

Of course, I have no idea whether or not the election was rigged or not, though I have my suspicions. What interests me most about this story is how it paints a very different picture of Iran to the one we’ve been fed in the last decade or so. Far from being a monolithic Islamic state in thrall to Ahmadinejad, there’s evidently enough support for reform to threaten the incumbents; after all, a mere handful of angry reformists does not a riot (or an electoral recount) make.

How long this has been the case is beyond my knowledge, and I wish I had the time and opportunity to research it further. But the ubiquitous presence of peer-to-peer communications (and their inevitable censorship by the state) is telling, and I find myself wondering if perhaps the talk about democracy being a viral concept has some weight to it after all. Have services like Twitter and Facebook simply given a voice to those already opposed to the incumbent Iranian government? Or have they acted as a catalyst, enabling a population whose access to information and discussion was previously more closely controlled to see that there are alternatives within their grasp?

These aren’t questions with simple answers, of course, and there are many other factors at play in a world where everything is changing faster than ever before. But I think it’s fair to suggest that the internet is one of the strongest disruptive forces on the gameboard, especially in countries where state control of media has been far more crude and heavy-handed than here in the privileged West.

I fully expect we’ll be seeing a lot more stories like this from developing nations in years to come, as affordable communications technology pulls aside the heavy curtains of the state… it’s good news for oppressed citizens, certainly (at least in the short run), but for global stability? Maybe not so much.

2 thoughts on “The Iranian elections: is democracy viral?”

  1. Paul,

    I strongly recommend that you go to the following website:

    Nate Silver is one of the figures who came out of last year’s elections as a genuine force in political analysis. He is a trained statistician and has used that training in analyzing elections and polling. He does not hesitate in questioning pollsters’ methodology and analysis.

    He and others have tended to believe the results of the Iranian elections, if not the actual vote.

    The Iranian election once again demonstrates how prone we all are to seeing what we want to see. We forget that Tehran’s population is urban, educated and bourgeois (in the best sense of that word). It is not necessarily representative of the population of the country. Ahmedinajad’s popularity has always been in the poorer precincts of Tehran and in the countryside.

    Finally, Tienanmen Square more than adequately demonstrated that if a government is will to use excessive violence to enforce its will, it will usually win. The Burmese generals demonstrated it again, to the point of starving and isolating their own people after one of the worst national disasters in that country’s history.

    Oh, and with Iran, you tie in religious fanaticism with state power. A truly evil combination which enables the forces of the state to view any opposition to that government as apostasy.

    Rick York

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