Belarus Can Learn Democracy from Iran

It may sound surprising but the Iranian political system is more democratic and pluralistic than its Belarusian counterpart.

To build a democratic state Belarus needs a complete overhaul, while Iran needs just light repairs. Anti-Western rhetoric united these regimes but when it comes to political systems there are more differences than similarities. 

Belarus' political system is centred around one personality.  The foundation of Iranian politics is a number of power centres openly competing against each other. Iran has a vibrant media market where multiple daily newspapers represent not only views of various fractions within the ruling elite but also views of the opposition. Finally, while Belarus has not had real elections since 1995, the outcome of Iranian elections is always uncertain and does depend on the voters' choice.

Centre of Power: One in Belarus and Multiple in Iran

Belarusian politics may be reduced to a simple personality paradigm. Since the late 1990s, Belarus' first and only President Alexandr Lukashenka has taken complete control over  executive, legislative and judiciary branches of government in Belarus.  He controls a largely discontented population and has managed to marginalise the opposition.

The opposition after years of persecution has no real place within this mechanism of control. All important decisions are made in one centre – the Presidential Administration. Other state bodies only implement its decisions, The Belarusian parliament is a rubber stamp institution which approves everything sent to it from the Presidential Administration.

The Belarusian regime has already eradicated any real political competition in the country. For years, it has kept the opposition out of the mainstream media, does not allow it to meet with people and prevents it from entering even the powerless local councils. Thus, the opposition has no experience with political activity, as it has to do more with dissident and underground work. Their absence of real qualifications became manifest in last presidential elections with numerous oppositional candidates campaigning against the single regime candidate, or in their different stances towards participation in these parliamentary elections.

The Belarusian state is ruled and manipulated by a ruler which shows no tolerance for serious opponents. Survival of the opposition is conditional on its weakness, as any serious rival instantly faces severe repressions. Seeing the rise of Social Democrat leader Mikola Statkievich or businessman Mikalay Autukhovich, the regime imprisoned them for years using obedient Belarusian courts. The rule of law and separation of powers are severely undermined in Belarus.

Moreover, there are no established mechanisms for elites' rotation in power as well as the guarantees for elites losing power. No one can return to power after being thrown out of the government. Such persons either become marginalised in the opposition inside the country (like former National Bank chief Bahdankievich) or go to work abroad (as former foreign ministers Latypau and Krauchanka).  

There is not even a slightly comparable figure to Lukashenka and no single centre of power in Iran

Iran is very different. There is not even a slightly comparable figure to Lukashenka and no single centre of power. Among most important centres of power are the presidential office of the supreme leader, parliament, judiciary etc. The Shah may have established a regime a la Lukashenka but it was been crushed by the 1979 revolution. Iran's sixth president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tried to introduce his own dictatorship in mid-2000s yet despite all the violence and fraud succeeded only in uniting all political factions against himself.

Numerous factions representing different forces control different branches of the Iranian government from the time of the revolution. The elites who lead occasionally struggle, even ferociously at times,  among themselves yet usually stop short of eliminating their opponents. Thus, the leader of the radical faction and former Prime Minister in 1980s Mir Hussein Musavi lost his battle in early 1990s but made a comeback in late 2000s.

Political Violence 

Violence does take place in Iranian politics and some people get killed. Yet the struggle among factions cause these assassinations much more frequently than any consolidated will of the Iranian government (like in the case of so called “chain murders” when a conservative faction used rogue elements of Information Ministry to kill a number of intellectuals and activists).

In addition, the Islamic Republic – like many states throughout the world – resorts to killing opponents which deny its right to exist and lead armed struggle against it (like Mojahedin-e Khalq or separatists and Sunni fundamentalist guerillas). However, the scale of Iranian state-sponsored targeted killings cannot be compared to Soviet terror.

Belarus has seen three cases of disappearances related to politics in 1999-2000, among them of former internal minister Zakharanka and the leader of dissolved parliament Hanchar. The third disappearance, of the TV cameraman Zavadski, may have been a private feud. Yet the Belarusian state does not face terrorist activities and armed radical opposition. Actually, the regime does not need such intensive intimidating methods as cruel torture or killing. 

The Iranian government and factions use physical force when it is too late to sort out the situations with milder means. Pro-government forces in Iran had to fire into crowd in 2009 while Belarusian security services dispelled even completely harmless silent protests in 2011. The Belarusian state has held a firm grip over every part of the nation and in this way it could sideline all potential pretenders. For example, none of the politicians from 1990s  has any political following now and the rating of not one of the oppositional politicians can be compared to Lukashenka's, even today.

Elections: Results in Iran Are Difficult to Predict

Since 1979, Iran held all its elections in due time and they – with exception of radical opposition which explicitly or implicitly denies the right of current Iranian state to exist – displayed real political competition. There are reasonable proofs of falsification only in the last presidential elections. The votes were generally counted and even anti-establishment candidates managed to win. For example, Ahmadinejad won his first election in 2005, Khatami won his presidency twice though the Supreme leader preferred another candidate.

Independent Belarus has held only two real elections, a presidential in 1994 and a parliamentary in 1995

Independent Belarus has held only two real elections, a presidential in 1994 and a parliamentary in 1995. The winners of these elections – Alexandr Lukashenka and the first not-Soviet parliament - almost immediately started fighting with each other and it ended in 1996 with a manipulated referendum and constitutional coup-d'etat. The nation has no experience of electoral politics at all, the politicians know only the political struggle for life or death. The parliament has had no role in politics since 1996. The election fraud became so common that no one wonders when it is revealed.

Media Freedom: Two Different Worlds

Despite many media being shut down in Iran, the country has vibrant media landscape with no monopoly of any faction on media. Both different factions of ruling elites and different clusters of opposition have each either their own media or access to such media. Though such dailies as Iran, Keyhan, Jam-e-Jam or Ettelaat all can be designated as having some affiliation with the government and its different branches yet they each represent very different views.

In Belarus the state-owned media is so similar that in May information minister Aleh Pralyaskouski announced merger of five national newspapers into one. “There is little difference in their thematic contents and forms of presentation”, he explained. The Belarusian opposition can voice their opinions in one relatively important daily and three weekly publications, as well as on its own websites.

The situation with TV and radio in Iran also demonstrates more freedom than in Belarus

The situation with TV and radio in Iran also demonstrates more freedom than in Belarus as they – although not in fair proportions – it does give some space to different political factions. Thus during the 2009 presidential election campaign there was a series of one-on-one open discussions between all candidates, including the incumbent – something that is simply a fantasy in Belarus. The Iranians also watch satellite TV, including many Western-based channels with their appropriate democracy and human rights inputs such as Persian BBC.

There is no place for anyone except for Lukashenka and his entourage on the TV and radio. The country is much more closed due to the Iron Curtain in Soviet times and remains under Russian cultural and informational clout. If Belarusians watch satellite TV, then it is often Russian channels with Russian news and ideas of democracy.

Future Prospects: Unlike Iran Belarus Needs a Completely New System

Iran only needs to reform some unelected branches of government – such as the office of the Supreme Leader by giving clergy the role which has been provided for it in the 1906 Constitution. All other branches function decently enough for a developing country and and have kind of separation of powers.

The Iranian government may continue working as usual after democratic reforms, yet with less censorship and a new role for the clergy. The mechanisms of Iranian political system have proven to be very robust, as the nation continued its development after the war and revolution, which was followed by rather limited political violence.

Belarus needs a completely new political system for democratic transformation. The current regime concentrates all power in the president's hands in the absence of any checks and balances. Most likely the regime insiders will replace Lukashenka at some point, as has happened with similar regimes in the past. They will have little idea about democratic development, and the nation will need many years to establish accountable and efficient government.

Siarhei Bohdan is an associate analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre.

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