This post can also be found on FPA’s Latin America Blog.
This week while the protestors in Iran were slowly being arrested and assaulted, Honduras had its own coup with the Judiciary, Legislature and military forcing out the Honduran President Jose Manuel Zelaya. Honduras’ other policy branches sought its own change by placing its own leader in power in order to quell the Executive Branch from leading a populist move to allow the President to stand for election indefinitely. Such a constitutional change for the benefit of the President and the Executive branch was successfully accomplished by Hugo Chavez in Venezuela a few short months ago. This altering of constitutional powers that limit the Executive from seeking election past a designated term in office is a common limit to the power of the President in many nations with a similar political system. While Parliamentary Democracies often have leaders stand for election well past six years (as technically you are electing the party, and not the leader), it is seen as a violation of the democratic system in many nations and allows the tyranny of the majority to rule over all sectors of society in those countries considered a Republic. In those systems, the power of the President is paramount and is only limited by the legislature and judiciary. While Venezuela’s battle over control between the branches took hold in debate and via legal measures, Honduras’ branches of government took the direct route, upsetting many supporters of the President as well as supporters of Zelaya outside of Honduras, including Mr. Obama who often is seen as the culprit of actions against leftist leaders in Latin America.
The irony of these latest popular protests in Iran and Honduras come from the support given by those who ideologically would naturally support “the other” in these conflicts. As mentioned above, Obama, who represents a US that allows for power to be tempered against the Executive by the Judiciary and Legislative branch when the Executive tries to unbalance its influence in the Republic, has openly supported the power of President Zelaya in Honduras and is helping to return the President to his office in the capital. While the support obviously comes from the manner in which Zelaya was removed, the election of Obama and great support no doubt came from the result of accusations of abuse of the Executive branch by Bush and Cheney when in office as claimed by many constitutional experts in the US and abroad. The other twist in this narrative comes from Chavez’s support of Iran’s illegitimately elected president and ruling Religious Council. While Chavez and Ahmedinejad do get a lot of support from rural and urban poor in both their respective countries, popular support for Mosavi and opposition leaders in Iran are coming from the people themselves, who are protesting against unelected leaders via a populist uprising. Hugo Chavez, the poster child for populism in Latin America, won his own support for his government and changes to the constitution via a majority of people who legitimized his power in office, yet seeks to be a populist against populism when supporting the establishment in Iran. While debate continues to whether or not Chavez forcefully silenced his opposition during elections and referendums in Venezuela, support for Iran’s current government by Chavez may have more to do with Venezuela’s geopolitics than the will of the people in Iran. In the end, the fight for power in Iran did not start with hard opposition to Iran’s Ayatollahs, as true reformers were not allowed to run for government in Iran. Iran’s leadership crisis is one of oligarchs in Iran’s leadership pushing to gain more influence and leverage over Iran’s dominant Councils and clerics and to gain support from Iran’s youth that make up more than 70% of Iran’s population as noted by many experts. As a result of violence however, many in Iran wish to move beyond a simple election of Mosavi dominated by the Religious Councils and wish to move towards a free vote and debate in society.
Iran will likely slowly degrade from within, but maintain its same structure in the process. The true measure of change for those outside of Iran is whether or not a new government, in a similar, form will choose to involve itself in the Arab world, continue to divide and conquer diverse political groups, religions and cultures in Iran and decide to promote Iranian culture and economy outside of Iran towards the West or the East. The reposition of the US and the oil market may grow the influence of populists in Latin America and illegitimate governments in the Middle East, but eventually economics and popular movements will create a debate where the people must choose between two unstable alternatives and hope for great leaders to build their nations. At best, Lebanon without political assassinations would be a welcomed outcome for Iran. Lessons from Latin America for Iran may come from those same intellectuals that are currently sitting in Evin prison in Tehran for speaking their views. One academic from Latin America similar to those imprisoned in Iran is Guillermo O’Donnell, a Latin American intellectual who often writes on differing forms of democracy. Many of his theories surround the issues of democratic institutions and voting. Simply voting does not create a democratic society in itself, but the interaction between different ideas, from grassroots movements, journalists, professors, politicians and communities produce institutions which seek to balance power in the hands of the people, and not in that of a religious oligarchy or simply the Executive. Unfortunately in Iran, once violence takes hold of any election, voting becomes not simply the symbol of a healthy democratic society but it transforms and becomes a means of protest when all other democratic institutions become disenfranchised of their legitimate authority. Equality and rights does not come from a simple ballot, as important as the process is, but comes from institution building and seeking of rights in every unique society. This is what many often abuse in Latin America, and seems to not be understood by religious oligarchs in Iran. The original form of ancient Greek democracy has evolved, and will leave those behind who do not understand it beyond its basic elements. Unfortunately as many Latin American oligarchs have known, the end result is always the same, albeit in differing and unique forms of anarchy.