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Iraq Is More Democratic Than Iran

Iraq's elections so far appear to have been mostly free and fair, something few of its neighbors can claim.
Iraq's elections so far appear to have been mostly free and fair, something few of its neighbors can claim.
Whatever one may think about the U.S. motivation behind the overthrow of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003 and the post-invasion violence, destruction, and chaos, at least in terms of free and fair elections, Iraq today is far more democratic than most other Arab countries and neighboring Iran.

On January 31, Iraqis went to the polls to elect 440 members of provincial councils, whose duties include choosing provincial governors and provincial administrations. A total of 14,431 candidates from more than 400 parties and groups were registered, including 3,912 women. Admittedly, this does not mean much if the elections are not held in a free and fair context -- free competition between political parties and groups, equal chances for all candidates, and unrestricted media coverage.

With different ethnic and sectarian groups including Sunni and Shi'ite Arabs, Iraqis from most relevant political groupings with differing positions were free to campaign, both publicly and through the media. The three Kurdish provinces, which already enjoy autonomous status, will hold their provincial elections later this year. There have been no major complaints to date about the process of candidate or voter registration, registration of political entities, nomination of candidates, the actual voting and vote count, or the certification and publication of results that are coming in.

Compare that picture with Iran. In the first place, provincial governments and governors are not elected in Iran. They are appointed by the central government in Tehran. Nor can the most recent presidential election in June 2005 be described as democratic.

As in all previous presidential ballots, would-be candidates had first to win the approval of the powerful Guardians Council, a 12-man body accountable only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, an unelected figure who represents the highest political authority in the country. Only six of 1,014 candidates were allowed to run, and five of those six were close supporters of Khamenei and the Guardians Council. The sixth candidate had been a member of the Islamic establishment for 26 years, but had had disagreements with the Guardians Council in the years preceding the election. The winner and current president, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, was one of the five.

All candidates in Iran must support the system led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Political parties are banned in Iran, except for those that adhere to the political and ideological system in Iran. Even those "reformists" who criticize the government and individual political figures profess their loyalty to the system and the unelected supreme leader or the Guardians Council.

The Guardians Council excludes all candidates in both parliamentary and presidential elections who do not support the establishment unequivocally. The electronic media are under the total control of the supreme leader's office. Even newspapers that support "reformist" pro-establishment forces and politicians have been shut down.

In spite of the war, destruction, and terrorist and ethnic violence since 2003, Iraq is doing far better than Iran in terms of elections. Speaking to RFE/RL's Radio Farda, Qasem Sholeh-Sadi, a professor of political science at the University of Tehran, says that Iraq and Afghanistan have succeeded in holding broadly free and fair elections in spite of invasion and violence, while in Iran, despite a century-old tradition of elections, candidates are arbitrarily filtered by the Guardians Council.

Most other Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf states, and Syria, cannot compete with Iraq in terms of democratic elections. Some hold no elections at all, free or unfree.

Iran has considerable influence in Iraq. If the security situation in Iraq continues to improve and the country makes further progress towards internationally recognized norms of democracy and freedom, Iraqis will soon find that their neighbor to the east, who is still trying to dictate to them how to do things better, in fact has a lot to learn from them.

Abbas Djavadi is associate director of broadcasting with RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL