Three grand experiments in democracy are making history around the world. One is taking place in Taiwan, which has shown for 14 years that Confucian culture can coexist with free elections. Another is the European Union, which is creating a democracy among sovereign states. And lastly, there is Iran.
The Islamic Republic - which is more Islamic than republic - just had an election with a huge turnout of voters that gave a landslide victory for the reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, who actually holds few levers of power.
The voice of the people was heard in this vote. But that's not yet enough to quickly overrule the conservative clerics who rule in the name of Islam, with "supreme leader" Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It was instead a step toward finding a greater role for democracy within the theocratic state created by the 1979 revolution.
Mr. Khatami, himself a cleric, has now gained legitimacy for his hope of a tolerant and law-abiding civil society that honors each Muslim's religious independence. Women and the young, especially, see him as their hope for a loosening of many Islamic strictures. His tactics, which only seem to anger his opponents and cause them to crack down on his supporters, are persuasion, consensus, and patience - essential to any democracy. The conservatives have already shut down most reformist newspapers, jailed critics, and vetoed many legislative reforms.
With this victory, however, Khatami can now more easily form political coalitions with moderate conservatives, who know they can ignore public opinion only so long. Then Iran's extremism can be moderated by a growing democracy.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor