This morning's Herald editorial, "voters can elect who they wish" (offline), is about the current Palestinian Authority elections and how (following the trend in the Middle East) they are unlikely to result in a government acceptable to the west. However, along the way, they include the following:
Iran has fairly freely elected an Islamist government.
There are two ways of reading this. Iran's elections were indeed "fairly free" - compared to those run by Saddam Hussein - but the winner, Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad, was not elected freely and fairly. It's not that voting was interfered with or that the count was fraudulent or that the process itself was interfered with (unlike Florida, Iran counts its votes). Instead, the people's choice was limited by limiting who was allowed to run. Iran's unelected Guardian Council disqualified over a thousand candidates, leaving only six, all of whom were part of the religious oligarchy. Intervention by the Ayatollah Khamenei resulted in two more "reformist" candidates being accepted, but the field was still effectively limited to those deemed by the Guardian Council to be no real threat to religious rule. Women, non-Muslims, Sunnis, and those who did not adhere to "the progressive principle of the absolute rule of the Jurisconsult" were simply not allowed to run. The same process (as well as the silencing of reformist media) was used to stack the deck in the 2004 Majlis election, guaranteeing an enormous conservative victory. While I think that the result in the Presidential election at least was broadly representative of the will of the people, Iranian elections consistently fail to meet international standards and should not be called "free and fair".
That aside, the Herald has a point when it points out that religious parties are popular in Muslim societies and that we need to recognise that. If we believe in democracy, then it means accepting people's choice of government as legitimate whether we like them or not. This does not mean looking the other way on human rights abuses, it does not mean accepting oppression, and it does not mean ceasing to advocate for progress where progress is needed. We can continue to advocate, persuade, and apply diplomatic pressure. What it means is discarding any pretence of a "right" to usurp people's choices and choose their government for them. Kissinger's famous quote on Chile - that
"I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves."
is anathema to any real democrat.
In the case of countries like Iran, we should press for free and fair elections and an end to oppression - and if we really believe that "all men desire freedom" then the rest will deal with itself. It may be slow, but it is better to let people choose their government for themselves, make their own mistakes and learn from them than usurp their choices and attempt to impose a "benign" government to rule in "their" interests. As the Herald says,
Democracy never guarantees a desired result [but] accepting the result is perversely the best way to change it.