Why were the Lebanese elections regarded as a “crushing defeat” for Hizbullah and FPM and their allies? It was not because the final count of seats was substantially different from what it had been before, but because pre-election hype had made it seem as if the opposition was going to sweep into power. When the government retained its majority amid high turnout, this was declared to be a wonderful thing and proof of the vibrancy of Lebanese democracy, such as it is, even though in terms of the sheer number of votes cast the opposition garnered more support. Because of the sectarian balancing act that is required in Lebanese government, the larger vote tally won by the opposition translated into a minority of seats because of where those votes were cast. In the parallel universe in which most Western commentary on such things is written, this was a repudiation of the opposition and a triumph for freedom, etc., rather than being seen as something of a fluke of Lebanese parliamentary politics. I suppose flukes don’t lend themselves very well to propagandistic uses. It is apparently far better to celebrate a biased, inherently rigged system as pure democracy in action. Unless the biased, inherently rigged system is Iranian, in which case it is nothing but an enormous sham.
Now let us turn to Iran. The pre-election hype was that the opposition candidate was enjoying a surge in support in the final weeks and stood a chance of forcing a run-off, if not actually beating the incumbent outright. Then, amid record-high turnout, the incumbent won handily and the opposition complained that it had been robbed. In other words, the hype in Lebanon was just hype and was shown to be such on election day, whereas it was God’s own truth in Iran. As the Leveretts argue in Politico today, Ahmadinejad’s official percentage of the vote is very close to his 2005 total against Rafsanjani. As it happens, this is true. Of course, this result was from the head-to-head run-off between two candidates, rather than the multi-candidate first round, but it is not necessarily impossible that a comparable percetange of a larger electorate backed Ahmadinejad in the first round as turnout increased. This does not rule out the use of fraud. Fraud may have been widespread as well, but what we do not know as yet is how significant the effect of this fraud was.
Given all of this, the readiness with which almost everyone in the West seems to be accepting the “coup” explanation is rather worrisome. It is similar to the lockstep consensus on the “Iraqi threat” six years ago that made war all but inevitable, and it is similar to our political class’ certainty last year that Georgia was merely an innocent victim of “Russian aggression,” which has been found again and again to be false. The “coup” in Iran is becoming one of those things that “everyone knows,” and as we have seen more than a few times in the past the things that “everyone knows” are not always true. Moreover, this thing that “everyone knows” about the Iranian election is based on partial, sketchy and biased information–sound familiar? There may be elements of the “coup” story that hold up under scrutiny. It is true that the Revolutionary Guards and Basij militia are loyal to Ahmadinejad and had a significant role in all of this, but how much of that role was illegal under Iranian law remains to be seen.
Part of the “coup” argument is that America must not side against the Iranian people, and it is taken for granted that the people are on Mousavi’s side, because Mousavi’s claims of representing the majority are taken at face value and Mousavi’s side is sometimes simply identified as the side of The People. Were the situation reversed and Ahmadinejad supporters were the ones rioting, it is all but certain that no one would believe a word of their complaints. It is being called fascism when the police attack pro-Mousavi protesters, but you know that it would also be called fascism if it were Ahmadinejad’s people rioting in the streets rather than Mousavi’s, even if the positions of the two candidates were reversed exactly and their actions were identical. (Of course, if Mousavi were the incumbent, he might very well win, because no incumbent has ever lost in any Iranian presidential election–why exactly do we think that anything has changed this time?) If Ahmadinejad’s supporters were the ones in the streets, we would hear all about how they need to accept defeat and acknowledge the validity of the election, and if they refused to do so they would be charged with subverting the democratic process.
The “coup” argument is a consensus view that fits a lot of existing prejudices, allows us to reaffirm pleasant myths about the virtues of popular government (which we are supposed to believe would have yielded a good result, were it not for those meddling fraudsters), and provides an excuse for moralistic posturing in which we get to flaunt our enthusiasm for democracy mostly for our own satisfaction. I am increasingly skeptical that it describes the events of the last few days.