A ‘philosopher king’ and his benign leadership might make for better democracy than any messy West-approved system, writes pornpimol kanchanalak
"Spring" fever, as in the Arab Spring, has not taken place in Iran. Instead, last week, the former Persian empire, home to one of the world’s oldest continuous major civilisations, dating back to 4000 BC, delivered to the world an Iranian surprise. On that day ~ in a freer and fairer election than last time ~ the people of Iran defied the deleterious expectations and dire predictions of the West, showed the world that they can be the determinants in the Iranian political process, brought a change of government through peaceful means, and delivered a new president.
Unlike the 2009 election, which was followed by violent riots, this time people were out in the streets celebrating. The president-elect, Hassan Rowhani ~ a 64-year-old, mild-mannered cleric ~ won an overwhelming victory. He received 50.7 per cent of the vote, more than twice that of the runner-up, and more than the votes of all the other candidates combined. The delayed reaction from the Western media, after it was forced to rethink initial and prevalently specious reading, ranged from adulation and fascination to sneering dismissal. One outlet called the president-elect a "smiling Mullah" disguising his true colours under the veneer of a reformist, as the crony of the supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. "There’s a sucker born every minute," the same article opined, continuing with the quantifier that the statement applied to Americans. However, it is fair to presume that the "suckers" classification was meant to apply to any non-Americans who entertain the thought that the new president may signify noteworthy change in Iranian politics and policies.
Putting the snooty attitude aside, hoodwinked or not, some facts cannot be overlooked.
First and foremost, the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Hosseni Khamenei ~ the second Grand Ayatollah since the 1979 Islamic revolution ~ must himself have "initiated" the reform. The candidacy of Rowhani in the election would not have been permitted without the nod from the Ayatollah. The same can be said about the inclusion of another bona fide, albeit lesser-known, reformist candidate, Mohammad Reza Aref, who withdrew from the race two days before the election to avoid splitting the reformist vote.
Second, despite the fact that the former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani ~ the champion of Iran’s reformists ~ was disqualified, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on the penultimate day before the election, called on all Iranians, even those who did not support the Islamic system of government, to cast their votes. And indeed they did. The turnout of over 70 per cent was the highest since 1979, when the Islamic leader Ayatollah Khomeini ~ the first supreme leader ~ took over from the once-secular, Western-backed regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Palavi.
Third, the presidency of Iran does have its own sphere of self-directed authority. The president chooses his own Cabinet which, despite the fact that it must be approved by the ultra-conservative parliament, is still within his own purview. He has the authority to implement the constitution in all matters except for those related directly to the supreme leader. The president does not control the armed forces, but he appoints the minister of intelligence and defence.
Outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad chose to dispense a large chunk of the Iranian budget in support of developing able scientists and mathematicians. Evidence of how good these scie ntists are can be found in the downing of a US drone in northeastern Iran in 2011; it was fooled by a sophisticated Iranian cyber attack into thinking that it was landing in the US. In fact, Iran has downed several more US drones and used reverse engineering to make their own that are now flying in the region.
Fourth, the leadership of Iran must believe that the time is ripe to seek an end to US and international sanctions that have inflicted severe economic hardship on the country’s citizens. The lack of daily necessities, double-digit unemployment, and unutilised natural resources due to lack of development funds are some of the reasons that may have dictated the first steps towards rapprochement with the West. Rowhani, in his first major public statements, has said that the broken relationship with the US and the West can be mended.
More interestingly, the Iranian election, as imperfect and lacking in maturity as it is, defies the conventional modern view of democracy.
In Book VI of Plato’s "Republic", Plato advocates that a ruler must be a lover of wisdom ~ the philosopher king, who philosophises and has access to true knowledge, the total view of government, as opposed to the base and "simple sight" knowledge that may lead to short-sighted policies, and in many cases vain and self-interest-driven courses of action. Plato’s idea of ideal leadership is the benign benevolent who acts selflessly for the benefit of the people.
In fact, it was said that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ~ the first supreme leader who staged the Islamic revolution that ousted the Shah and shaped the current political landscape of Iran ~ was inspired by the Platonic vision of the philosopher king while in Qum in the 1920s, when he became interested in Islamic mysticism and Plato’s idea of the republic.
Philosophers after Plato blamed his idea of philosopher kings for the birth of many totalitarian regimes such as those of Stalin and Hitler, who both committed unspeakable atrocities against their own people in the name of "idealism" and "social engineering".
But we can also argue that the concept of a philosopher king can lead to a successful and benevolent form of government. Singapore is one such example. China under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping is another example of a truly visionary leader who led his country out of an economic, political and social black hole into the modern era. Oman during the current reign of Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said is an exemplary case of how much difference one altruistic, compassionate and competent leader can do for the good of his people and the country.
Contrast this with our own messy and dreadful "democratic" system, where every government-initiated project means a blatant transfer of public wealth into private pockets, leaving the country in a sinkhole of debt for generations to come. The red-shirt way-or-the highway brashness is turning Thailand into an ochlocracy.
People may develop more appreciation for the idea of benign benevolent leadership, regardless of what the West may call it.