If we compare events in Iran over the last few days with the pro-democracy protests in Thailand, does that tell us anything important or interesting about Thai democracy?
Well, the first point of comparison is to observe that, irrespective of what the real vote counts should be in Iran, it is clear that people will vote for who they want to vote for and who that person or party might be does not always coincide with what state or international interests might like. Most people outside of Iran would, I would think, consider the incumbent Ahmedinajad to be a dangerous demagogue and his nuclear ambitions dangerous – yet there seem to be plenty of people willing to vote for him and to agree with the belief that he offers the best means of survival in a world in which powerful enemies are waiting to strike. In Thailand, the ideology is quite different but the mass of people have repeatedly voted for the parties that would provide redistribution from the rich to the poor. Democracy means that people should be allowed to vote for who they wish.
However, both in Iran and Thailand, it appears to be the case that the will of the people is to be denied. Here of course a military coup and newly installed judges were employed to oust the democratically-elected government and then find pretexts to ban the parties involved altogether so that the military could install a compliant right-wing puppet. In Iran, it appears to be the case that attempts have been made and are being made to prevent the popular vote being recognised – violence is currently being used to suppress the desire for democracy and it is not yet clear what the results will be (apart from inevitable bloodshed).
In both countries, the state authorities have been perfectly willing to use violence to disperse pro-democracy protestors – there seems to be more scrutiny on the Iranian situation (although of course it is a much more secretive and controlled society so access is more limited) and the international media is less willing to accept state-provided pretexts than they were in the case of Thailand.
In both countries, real power is wielded by extra-constitutional figures who prefer to act largely behind the scenes (or sometimes blatantly in public knowing that the media will remain quiescent). In Iran, these figures clothe themselves in religious robes and therefore make themselves immune to criticism – extensive propaganda campaigns are used to promote a state ideology equating religion with patriotism and virtue and aiming to make any dissident considered to be vicious and evil and an ‘enemy of the state.’
The attitude of the USA is different: Iran has suffered from years of persecution by the west and America in particular down to the ill-advised Bush ‘axis of evil’ policy. Part of Iranian voting behaviour may be seen in that context. In Thailand, the US was willing to support (or at least not convincingly condemn) military intervention because of co-operation by the Thai military (allegedly) with extraordinary renditions and torture and because the democratically-elected government was viewed as aiming to become too friendly with China (in reality as a means of diversifying export and production markets).