Last year became notorious for its large number of high-profile deaths in the entertainment world. So far this year, the toll has been more notable in the political world, with the death last weekend of two distinguished ex-presidents: Mário Soares of Portugal and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani of Iran.
Soares leaves the less equivocal legacy, being honored as the father of Portuguese democracy. He was a leading opposition figure under the fascist regime in the 1960s, being forced into exile in 1970. He returned after the Carnation Revolution overthrew the dictatorship in 1974, and as leader of the Socialist Party he led the successful struggle to prevent a Communist seizure of power and establish a democratic constitution.
Twice prime minister, in his second term he negotiated Portuguese entry to the EEC, now the European Union. He went on to be elected president, serving two full terms and retiring in 1996. As president, his successful cohabitation with centre-right governments helped to entrench democratic norms in Portugal. He also later served for a term in the European parliament, and made another unsuccessful run for the presidency in 2006.
Portugal has been through some rocky times since then, including a bailout from the EU in 2011 and a political crisis in 2015, but in general its transition to democracy has been a striking success. The Global Peace Index rates it as the fifth most peaceful country in the world. For that achievement, Soares deserves a large share of the credit.
Rafsanjani was also in his way a fighter for democracy, at least towards the end of his career. But he leaves his country still well short of that goal.
As a close ally of Ayatollah Khomeini, Rafsanjani was a key figure in the establishment of the Islamic Republic in Iran, serving as parliamentary Speaker for most of the 1980s. He was widely credited with bringing about an end to the Iran-Iraq war in 1988. After Khomeini’s death and the appointment of Ali Khamenei as supreme leader, Rafsanjani replaced Khamenei as president and served for two terms, until 1997. In 2005 he ran for the position again, but was defeated by conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Both during and after his tenure of office, Rafsanjani staked out a position as a moderate, trying to rein in the religious hardliners without crossing over into open opposition to Khamenei’s regime. Following the 2009 election he gave guarded support to the protests against Ahmadinejad’s disputed victory, which may have helped to temper the severity of the subsequent crackdown.
When Ahmadinejad retired in 2013, Rafsanjani nominated again for the presidency but was disqualified by the Guardian Council. Instead he backed another moderate, Hassan Rouhani, who surprised observers by winning in the first round. Up for re-election this year, Rouhani may well miss Rafsanjani’s support and advice, although the reaction of crowds at Tuesday’s funeral is a strong sign that the reformist road still has popular support.
In his latter years, Rafsanjani evidently came to the conclusion that theocracy was a dead end and Iran needed liberalisation and democratisation, but that gradualism was a better strategy to achieve it than confrontation. With the carnage in nearby Syria as a warning it’s hard to say that he was wrong. But it involved him and his allies in uncomfortable compromises.