The silver lining in Iran's bad election

And yet — the elections Iran held Friday also proved just how powerful, and how ultimately uncontrollable, even the most heavily managed elections can be. Iran’s elections might not have been free or fair but they did, as an Iranian friend of mine put it, expose a “serious factional divide that could not be dealt with behind the closed doors of the ruling oligarchy.” They might not have presented society with two radically different candidates (Mir Housein Mousavi, the “reformer” in this election, presided over the mass murder of political prisoners when he was prime minister in the 1980s), but merely allowing the public the chance to vote against the current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, inspired the largest turnout anyone can remember. The press might not have been able to report everything that happened, but Iranians did attend electoral events in unprecedented numbers, hissing and cheering. The votes might not have been counted correctly, but the whiff of fraud has sparked the biggest wave of demonstrations Iranians have seen for a decade.

Yes, this was a highly managed, deeply illiberal election, and it didn’t even change the composition of the Iranian government: After all that, Ahmadinejad is still president. But the voting process did open a crack where none had existed, the possibility of choice did inspire what had seemed a passive society to protest, the campaign rallies allowed people to shout political slogans in front of the police without the police reacting. One could argue — and many Iranians do — that the poll was farcical. But Iran goes to show that a bad election is better than none at all.