Isn't it revealing that autocrats and dictators around the globe bother to stage phony elections in order to claim legitimacy? Remember Saddam Hussein telling Dan Rather in 2002 that he had won 99 percent of the vote? Fidel Castro routinely claims to receive overwhelming majorities in his rigged elections, and throughout Africa, potentates of various stripes adopt the title "president" without any true democratic backing.
Iran, too, has staged phony elections to bolster the tyrannical regime of the mullahs -- but while the Iranian people have voted overwhelmingly for reform, they have gotten only more repression.
It's worth dwelling on the importance undemocratic regimes attach to democratic window-dressing. By so doing, they signal an important concession -- namely, that only elections can grant legitimacy to governments.
In 1776, the idea that legitimacy can flow only from the consent of the governed was, well, revolutionary. In 2005, it is axiomatic -- if only imperfectly translated into action. Saddam did not claim that dictatorship was superior to democracy. The mullahs, for all their religious fanaticism, do not claim to have received the mandate of heaven to govern Iran. All claim to be genuine democrats.
There is power in this insight. Recall the situation in Nicaragua in the 1980s and early 1990s. The Sandinista regime was Marxist. It came to power originally as part of a coalition elected after the fall of dictator Anastasio Somoza. Once in power, the Sandinistas purged the more moderate members of the coalition and began to build a Cuban-style totalitarian regime. In 1984, they staged a phony election and declared themselves re-elected. But as the United States began to apply pressure by aiding the armed non-communist opposition (the "Contras"), and as the other nations of Central America began to demand free and fair elections in Nicaragua, the more cornered the regime in Managua became.
In the end, as the Soviet Union was collapsing and Eastern Europe was breaking the shackles of a half century of repression, the Sandinistas finally consented to hold truly free elections. It was the first time a communist country had held a free election. It was also the last. They were defeated in a landslide (albeit one that caught liberals in the United States by surprise).
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