PARIS — In the final days of the recent French presidential campaign, one confrontation looked like it might turn the tables in favor of underdog Marine Le Pen. Angry workers facing the closing of a Whirlpool plant in the northern city of Amiens cursed and whistled at visiting frontrunner Emmanuel Macron, accusing him of being the candidate of global finance at the expense of the ordinary folk of France. The 39-year-old Macron, however, managed to hold his own and defend his ideas in the hostile confines, on his way to what turned out to be a resounding victory on May 7 against his far-right opponent. Vive la France. Vive la démocratie.

It turns out, on the very same day as the French election, democracy of a different stripe was heating up far away in Iran — with a scene that looked surprisingly similar to Macron’s moment of truth at the shuttering factory. Incumbent President Hassan Rouhani had decided to visit the Zemestanyurt coal mine following an accidental explosion that had left dozens dead, sparking criticism about inadequate safety regulations. A video showing Rouhani’s dark-windowed car surrounded by angry miners was soon circulated by his conservative opponents in an attempt to portray the reformist incumbent as detached from the people’s problems.

Elections are relatively free, even if clerics have a say on who can run

As Le Monde reports from Tehran, Rouhani fought back with “unprecedented ferocity” ahead of Friday’s election against conservative challenger Ebrahim Raisi. “Don’t talk about tolerance in the face of criticism,” the 68-year-old president said this week, “when none of you dared to criticize the institution for which you work.”

Lively Iranian campaigning, in itself, may surprise those who think of the Islamic Republic of Iran as much more of a theocracy than a democracy. But in fact, presidential elections are relatively free — even if clerics have a say on who can run — and surprises from voters have occurred several times over the past two decades, including with Rouhani’s win four years ago.

Defining Iran an “undemocratic democracy,” The New York Times traced the origins of this somewhat schizophrenic system to the 1979 Revolution, when Islamists teamed up with liberal reformers to take down the Shah and muscle out the nation’s Communist faction.

Presidential elections — like the one Friday in Iran and those last week in France and last year in the U.S. — are increasingly global affairs that we follow in real-time across our hyper-connected world. But the decision rests in the hands of the people and politics of each single nation. Unless, of course, the Kremlin intervenes …


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