Triumph of ‘democracy’

Reading the “Have Your Say” section of the BBC News website is usually fraught with danger. For every pithy comment or apt observation, there are normally half a dozen other comments reflecting poorly articulated rage, rampant ignorance or casual to mild racism. Recently, I glanced across the web pages for the comments on the ongoing turmoil in Iran. One poster, whose name I shall not mention, fell into the poorly articulated rage category and seemed to summarise the popular ‘Brown is as bad as Ahmadinejad’ camp. For example, they question if there was a difference between the Labour ‘storm-troopers’ who manhandled the pensioner at the party conference a while ago and the militias and forces of the Iranian establishment. Broadly, the answer would be “yes”, if only in degree. As part of the crackdown on dissent, ‘Basijis’ militia groups are ransacking student dormitories and beating them. Despite my dislike of Gordon Brown, I have to note that I have not been, and do not expect to be, beaten by government sanctioned militias.

Yet one comparison was apt, if clumsy. This poster pointed out that neither candidate had a majority of support (if we assume the Iranian election was rigged, which for the purposes of this article let us assume it was). In 2005, Labour won a historic third term with 36 percent of the vote from 61 percent of the electorate, or around one fifth of the population. Whilst it cannot be directly assumed that the other four fifths all opposed a Labour government, the level of apathy is worrying for modern British democracy. In the 2005 Iranian election, 62.66 percent of the population voted, 61.99 percent in the second round of voting for Ahmadinejad (against the incumbent and slight attempted reformer Rafsanjani). Roughly half the Iranian people in that election wanted Ahmadinejad to rule, with the current Iranian opposition claiming that number has increased. The protests in Iran mirror the media criticism of Brown and popular discontent in Britain: both peoples want change to the system – though these systems are vastly different.

In 2005, many areas of the Iranian opposition boycotted the election, arguing that the role of President had no real power compared to the unelected religious leaders. As for British political involvement, political scientist Colin Hays deals with this in his book, Why We Hate Politics. He argues that apathy stems from feelings of lack of accountability and power. Yet he also points out that there has been a widening of politics and a shift to areas which are seen as more open for the average person: Facebook activism and online campaigns. The use of Twitter by the Iranian opposition comes as no surprise to this man.

Yet the heart of the difference between Iran and Britain is the power we have over traditional areas of politics; however, we too often fail to exercise it. We decry the political system for being unaccountable – or corrupt – yet broadly refuse to participate or do so reluctantly and actually hold politicians to account. It is vital not to ignore the old levers of power, the levers we can pull upon Parliament, the levers which Iran lacks with the disparity of power between the unelected religious establishment and the elected government. Because the state controls, ultimately, the oldest form of power in the world, and the foundation of all rule: that of the armed men watching over us.

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