Is Iran More Democratic Than Thailand?

When angry demonstrators recently took to the streets in Iran, the seething masses claiming that they had been robbed of true democracy recalled recent protest scenes in Thailand. An obvious and dangerous trend in international politics is that when any demagogue-type politician wins a landslide election, the opposition claims vote fraud and in many cases sends its supporters into the streets to stir unrest.

Nobody has yet appointed a color to Iran's street revolution, but the storyline of angry supposedly pro-democracy demonstrators is now familiar, and in many instances represents a graver threat to democracy than the supposedly authoritarian leaders they are protesting against.

Vladimir Putin's election triumphs in Russia have been widely lamented by opposition critics and foreign media, who have claimed he aims to become a new age Czar or latter-day Stalin bent on reestablishing the Soviet empire. Hugo Chavez's election wins in Venezuela have likewise been lamented by some outside the country due to his populism and export of anti-American policies in Latin America.

But it is in Thailand, where angry street mobs have for the past three and a half years challenged the legitimacy of successive democratically elected governments, that the structural parallels are starkest with Iran. Former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who notched two thumping election victories and a legally contested third, was criticized by his detractors for establishing a parliamentary dictatorship through his consolidation of power and was toppled in a 2006 coup.

In a true democracy, an elected leader does not lose his legitimacy just because he is opposed by powerful minority forces, nor do those forces have the right to extra-constitutionally remove a democrat leader.

Whether Iran may be considered a functioning democracy depends on the presence of functioning accountability mechanisms able to challenge the ruling establishment led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Iranian voters head to the polls every four years to elect their president and 290 members of a unicameral legislature. However candidates for parliament or president are vetted by a 12-member Guardian Council that allows the religious establishment to decide who runs in elections.

Iran's Guardian Council is dominated by loyalists to the Supreme Leader, who directly appoints six of the body's 12 members. The other six are appointed by the elected parliament, but with choices pre-screened by the head of the judiciary, who is also appointed by the Supreme Leader. In effect the Guardian Council, which plays the role of deciding the country's electoral choices, is directly answerable to the Supreme Leader.

The Guardian Council's veto powers are in some ways analogous to the situation in Thailand. For instance, Thailand's election commission is essentially appointed by a group of judges. The presidents of three main courts, two other judges selected by another group of judges, and two elected politicians from the ruling coalition and the opposition make up the Thai commission's selection committee.

The five-to-two domination by unelected judges, officially appointed by an unelected head of state over those with democratic accountability make for an undemocratic screening process dominated by the conservative legal establishment. Hence the role of judges in Thailand, in some ways, mirrors that of the Guardian Council in Iran.

But Iran's Guardian Council is not its most undemocratic institution; that role is reserved for Khamenei, who has the power to appoint the heads of the judiciary, state-owned broadcast networks and the armed forces; he also has final say over defense and foreign policy as commander-in-chief.

Iran's Supreme Leader wields powers akin to those of an ancient monarch or modern day dictator. It is Khamenei's unelected status that is behind the opinion that Iran needs to go through a political revolution to undo the excesses of its 1979 religious revolution.

It is thus interesting, from a pro-election perspective, that the top governing structure of Iran's Islamic theocracy has its democratic aspects ‑ at least in the electoral sense. While Iran's Supreme Leader is widely portrayed in the mainstream media as an unelected dictator, Khamenei spent decades moving up the ranks as a religious scholar. Through his perceived learnedness among peers and senior title holders, he earned a coordinating political role from influential clerics.

He later served eight years as president under Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the 1979 revolution, proving his leadership skills, religious expertise and devoutness. With all that in mind, prior to becoming Supreme Leader, Khamenei's qualifications were put to an 86-member Assembly of Experts for consideration.

{mospagebreak}

That assembly, which also has the power to remove the Supreme Leader, is a deliberative body of Islamic scholars elected directly by the general public every eight years. Assuming that these Islamic scholars perform their representative role, in the political sense they have the power and ability to check the "absolute" powers of the Ayatollah Khamenei.

Though it is often argued that in practice the Assembly of Experts have never exercised their powers to challenge or check the Supreme Leader's decisions (though the minutes of their twice-yearly meetings are not published, so this is debatable), in technical terms the Iranian Constitution provides for a checking and balancing mechanism that reflects the country's religio-cultural traditions within the framework of a modified conservative democracy.

Iran's Assembly of Experts is also in charge of supervising, dismissing and electing the Supreme Leader, and in the event of his death, resignation or dismissal, the body is vested with the power to take steps in the shortest possible time to appoint a new leader.

According to the Iranian Constitution, "Whenever the Leader becomes incapable of fulfilling his constitutional duties, or loses one of the qualifications mentioned in the Constitution, or it becomes known that he did not possess some of the qualifications initially, he will be dismissed." Thus it could be argued that Iran's leadership transition plan is more democratic than the soft and hard dictatorships and monarchies of Asia and Europe.

While it may be argued that Iran's cultural uniqueness requires that the state be ruled by a semi-democratic theocracy, there is no such cultural or historical guidance in the case of the Thai Kingdom. The line of separation between church and state is clear in Thailand, and Buddhist teachings do not advocate the application of its doctrines in the Constitution or laws, unlike Sharia law in Islamic republics.

Yet even in European constitutional monarchies, where the lines separating church and state have been less clear throughout history, there are virtually no remaining monarchy ruled states. Where monarchies remain in the world, the semi-authoritarian tendencies are often well-veiled and limited.

In comparison, the Islamic Republic of Iran's mechanisms for checks and balances, including the crucial role of the Assembly of Experts, demonstrates a more highly evolved democracy, even with Islam integral to its rule and operation. Despite drawbacks on human rights and the support of terrorism by state authorities, democratic transitions in Iran since the 1979 revolution until now have been orderly and peaceful.

For as long as Islam remains Iran's state religion, the role of Ayatollahs will always be respected and influential. Can the same be said for Thailand's unelected institutions and personages? Some argue that the much-touted national sense of "Thainess" has been promoted by the state-controlled school system, which inculcates students with a pro-establishment bias. But is Thailand's semi-democratic rule, which is supposedly guided by divinity and arguably managed by nominees, truly cultural or imagined?

That is where the democratic difference between Iran and Thailand lies. The completion of Thailand's long democratic evolution, dating to the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932, is not inevitable without the support of the majority of the electorate. For politically aware competing street protestors in Thailand, and among astute news consumers, the realization of Thailand's democratic deficit is there; for most it remains hidden from view, obfuscated by both state-controlled and private media.

The street protests in Iran have shown that Khamenei's political standing is not unassailable. If he were to abuse his power, including a role in the rigging of election results, the elected Assembly of Experts presumably could exercise its power to remove him. The question for Thailand is whether it has even such minimal democratic checks and balances.

The street protests in Iran have shown that Khamenei's political standing is not unassailable. If he were to abuse his power, including a role in the indirect manipulation of the election outcome, the elected Assembly of Experts has the power to remove him. Perhaps Iran does have its democratically elected checks and balances. The events now transpiring in Iran could in the future have particular relevance in Thailand. The significance in the present time could only be imagined through a painful contrasting exercise by the not so proper, nor superficial, thinking mind. The results of such an exercise is something that Thais must come to grip with, whatever the answer may be.

Nattakorn Devakula is a news analyst for Thailand Channel 11's "Newsline" and "NNT News Bulletin". He is also a regular international news commentator on Thailand's 24-hours cable news network, TNN.