The farce/tragedy unfolding in Iran raises a broader question: Why do non-democratic regimes bother with sham elections? In Iran, this is arguably a double sham: First, Ahmadinejad may well have stolen this election, i.e., the vote totals showing him winning in a landslide may be wholly fictitious. Second, no matter who won, real power in Iran still resides with the religious establishment, which decided who could run for president and still makes the major decisions.
Iran is nonetheless an interesting case in part because SOMETHING was at stake in elections that could have been fairly conducted and tabulated. But what about obvious cases, such as elections in the old Soviet Union, in which only one candidate appeared on the ballot, and in which the number of people reported to have voted was obviously just made up?
North Korea recently held parliamentary elections in which--surprise surprise--Kim Jong Il won the support of 100% of the voters based on 100% turnout in his district. Not having ever been to North Korea, I can't speak to how many people actually living there believe these numbers, although friends who have been to North Korea have told me that the regime's control over information is so complete that it is quite possible that its brainwashing is effective on a substantial proportion of the population. Given the penalties for free expression of views that question the government, it's impossible to know how effectively claims of democratic legitimacy play within North Korea. But certainly the claims are utterly useless if intended as external propaganda.
In the end, I'm tempted to read insincere and transparently false claims of democratic legitimacy as positive signs. If hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue, then the felt need of authoritarians and totalitarians over the last century or so to make false claims of democratic legitimacy at least reveals a modern supposition that popular support is necessary to legitimate state power. In earlier ages, autocrats either acted on the ground that might makes right or claimed the mandate of Heaven. Today, even in a theocracy such as Iran, Divine right is seen as inadequate, leading the country's rulers to cloak themselves in the mantle of popular sovereignty as well.
Whether pretensions to democracy ultimately lead to real democracy is an open question--and one directly related to a parallel phenomenon over the last 60 years or so: Some of the world's most abusive regimes have eagerly signed onto multilateral treaties that recognize human rights that these regimes then routinely violate. If autocrats feel free to engage in human rights rhetoric while violating human rights, there is every reason to think they also feel free to engage in democratic rhetoric without in any way democratizing.
Nonetheless, I remain cautiously optimistic about the long term. I hold no illusions that Kim Jong Il or even Kim Jong-un will willingly democratize. Rather, the hope is that the insincere use of democratic and human-rights-respecting rhetoric by autocrats raises expectations in the people, who eventually demand the real thing from their leaders. That's what we're seeing in the streets of Tehran today, and even if this pro-reform movement is squashed, eventually one will succeed. Or so, at least, one can hope.
Posted by Mike Dorf