Women leading the struggle for democracy and a new social contract in Iran
Protests in Iran, sparked by the arrest and killing of Mahsa Amini at the hands of Iran’s “morality police,” resulting in a global wave of solidarity, have provoked an outpouring of deep-seated and far-reaching public grievances related to poor governance, economic decline, social disparities, endemic corruption and lack of transparency and accountability. With their lives at stake, citizens from every segment of society—including university students, children, and school pupils, and even workers from the vital oil sector—have poured into the streets. The broad-based support for protesters and the multiplicity of demands points to the public’s demand for the renegotiation of a social contract. But what should Iran’s new social contract look like? At its core, a social contract is an agreement between the people and their sovereign on rights and obligations toward each other. In the immediate aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution that overthrew a half-century of secular dictatorial rule, Iran’s incoming leaders established a post-revolutionary social contract promising freedom to all and social welfare for the underprivileged. The Revolution, however, brought a new dictatorship to power – a theocratic regime that still rules today and controls most aspects of society. The Iranian covenant is unraveling. The government has failed to deliver on its promise of a virtuous, prosperous, and free Islamic society; it has instead been marred by the state’s clerical despotism, economic mismanagement, corruption, and gender apartheid Women and men in Iran want to live more freely, and a government that is at peace with the world and prioritizes the welfare of its citizens. A new social contract should stipulate rights to gender equality, improved living conditions, and social liberty for Iranians. The Global State of Democracy Indices (GsoDI) show Iran's performance on Fundamental Rights is poor, well below global and regional averages, with a steep decline observed after the 1979 revolution. The sub-attribute of Gender Equality performs particularly poorly. Today’s unrest is also rooted in a legitimacy crisis facing Iran’s leadership. Electoral turnout has traditionally been very high, suggesting faith and support in Iran’s government. But the GsoDI show a steep decline in Electoral Participation in the last two years, suggesting widespread public disillusionment which has been attributed to the country’s economic situation and is a threat to the legitimacy of theocratic rule. Economic despair has also eroded the social contract. the World Bank estimates that 40 per cent of the country lives below the poverty line as a result of severe economic decline. Years of sanctions have excluded Iran from the global financial system, leaving the country unable to gain from oil wealth. The economy has further deteriorated due to corruption and mismanagement of state resources by the government. Legitimacy challenges have been posed by high inflation, depreciated currency, soaring prices and high unemployment, deepening disillusionment over the regime’s failure to improve the economic and living situations in the country. The current uprisings reveal broad frustration over unmet social and economic needs. Iranians have lost faith in the government’s ability to deliver reforms, and they have shifted their aspirations of reform to goals of revolution. While it is too early to predict, failing to address the protestors’ demands will encourage further dissent that could trigger the eventual downfall of Iran’s clerical regime. With international support for protestors putting further pressure on the Iranian government, coupled with the 82-year-old supreme leader’s ailing health, prospects for democracy in Iran could look cautiously optimistic over the long term. It remains to be seen whether the protest movement will be strong enough this time to destabilize the regime and represent the disruptive and revolutionary route required for successful democratization in Iran without resorting to violence and in a pacifist climate favoring peacebuilding and multi-stakeholders consultation and negotiation.
How hurricanes threaten U.S. elections and why more flexible voting is needed
With less than a week to go to the United States’ midterm election, officials in Florida are working hard to ensure voter access for the thousands of Floridians impacted by Hurricane Ian’s wave of destruction in late September. Their efforts to overcome widespread voter displacement and polling station damage have been aided by a recent executive order from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has extended access to postal and early voting procedures in some of the worst affected areas. This has given voters in these areas the option of casting their ballot without having to make long or dangerous journeys and will reduce pressure on overstretched polling stations. While the exclusion of a Democratic-leaning county from the order’s provisions has attracted accusations of partisan manipulation, it nevertheless serves as a salutary reminder of the importance of special voting arrangements (SVAs) (non-conventional forms of voting) to the administration of natural hazard-affected elections and, to this extent, is consistent with International IDEA’s recent research findings. In short, they provide electoral systems with the flexibility they need to adapt to the challenges that hurricanes pose. The relevance of this lesson to the U.S. context is evident when one compares data on states’ hurricane risk with their permissiveness of postal voting. It reveals that many of the states most vulnerable to hurricanes are amongst the most restrictive of these voting methods. With the hurricane threat growing in severity and no sign of federal elections being moved outside of the Atlantic hurricane season, it is not unreasonable to speculate that in the future some of these states will have to administer a hurricane-affected election. Unless they adopt a more open approach to SVAs, they risk widespread disenfranchisement and placing their already beleaguered electoral processes under extreme strain. Postal voting regulation and hurricane vulnerability Before looking at the data, it is important to clarify that under the U.S.’ decentralised system of electoral management each state has its own electoral legal framework, which means that there is huge variation in the way in which states regulate postal voting. Broadly speaking however, these regulatory approaches fall into one of three models of differing permissiveness: (1) postal voting with an excuse, where voters require a valid excuse to request a postal ballot; (2) postal voting without an excuse, where voters can request a postal ballot without an excuse; and (3) universal postal voting, where postal ballots are sent out to all registered voters. Data visualisation credit: Emily Bloom Data visualisation credit: Alexander Hudson A more flexible future? Electoral legal frameworks across the U.S. have tended to evolve in such a way that first incorporates and then broadens access to postal voting, a process that broadly speaking has been accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet this evolution in some parts of the country, including in states most vulnerable to hurricanes, has been hindered and even reversed as false claims about voter fraud during the 2020 presidential election have fueled legislation restricting postal voting. This could seriously impair these states’ ability to manage a hurricane-affected election. One way of overcoming concerns about postal voting would be for states to follow Canada’s lead and enact exceptional electoral regulations that apply only during natural disasters. Such regulations could empower election managers to implement universal postal voting in such circumstances. However, in developing flexible electoral frameworks that enable them to effectively meet the challenges posed by natural hazards, states should look beyond postal and early voting and consider the full range of SVAs being implemented around the world.
The liberation of art as a democratic act
Democracy is in clear decline around the world, but a surprisingly obvious development is in the works. In an important act of supranational democracy, several former colonial powers, including Germany, Netherlands, France, Belgium, the UK, and the United States, have all started returning, to varying degrees, a vast collection of colonially expropriated artefacts to their original homelands. Returning looted art signals acknowledgement of how communities have had to struggle with the social, economic and political consequences of a deeply antidemocratic colonial history. It is also a gesture to halt the continuation of injustice, symbolized by having to travel to the West to see the masterpieces of one’s homeland. In fact, the playing field is stunningly unequal, with 90 percent of African art residing outside of Africa. This inequality is compounded by the fact that museums don’t even show everything they have. The British Museum’s publicly viewable collection is a mere 1 percent of what it owns. Human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson said that while former colonial powers cannot right historical wrongs, they can at least stop profiting from them (in 2019, the British Museum reported an income of £4.3 million). Notably, however, the British Museum refuses to repatriate artefacts – exemplified most notably by its retention of the Benin Bronzes -- claiming that the law does not permit deaccession and that the Museum’s “encyclopaedic collection,” which tells the “interrelated histories of humanity as a whole,” must be protected as such. These claims are compounded by narratives like that of Tiffany Jenkins, who argues that using “victimisation as the moral basis for the ownership of artefacts” could lead to a never-ending chain of claims and that it masks leaders’ current political failures. These arguments ignore the current global institutional structures of racism and inequality within which these museums function and continue to profit and turn a blind eye to how former colonies, who were pillaged economically and culturally, are now expected to work towards democracy and development without just restitution for those crimes. Beyond all these arguments is the rather compelling sentiment that stealing art is like pilfering a people’s collective memory, the lessons of their history and the foundations of their identity. Ai Weiwei once said that “the purpose of art is the fight for freedom.” It is not a panacea, but returning stolen art is a small step in liberating these peoples’ stories and a good-faith gesture in supporting democratization.