While the political equality offered by universal, equal, direct suffrage was, and continues to be, regarded as potentially transformative, its impact is conditional and can be diminished if introduced into settings marked by stark socioeconomic inequalities and steep social hierarchies. Electoral fraud and manipulation are the result when democracy bumps up against economic inequality…
That is from new research by Daniel Ziblatt of Harvard University. His focus is 19th century Germany, but those are the broader implications. The mechanism he identifies may also have analogues in other countries:
…landed elites seek to preserve their electoral dominance in the countryside but no longer do so inside a direct patron-client relationship. Instead, they exert influence indirectly via the capture of rural local public officials such as mayors, county commissioners, police officials, and election officials, who in turn are the actors that interfere with free and fair elections. In its most acute form, capture occurs as socioeconomic interests infiltrate the state by using their own personnel to staff the state
Indeed, elections can even be dangerous in this way:
…Elections in nondemocratic regimes can potentially bolster entrenched interests, buying greater legitimacy for imperfect regimes, thereby extending their life span. Thus, we need not only focus on the “adoption” or short-term “choice” of democratic procedures as most empirical work continues to do but also to examine the long-term process of democratization as it confronts, and is shaped by, a variety of “push-back” tactics such as election manipulation that are deployed with the goal of making elections endogenous to preexisting social power.
The paper is here (ungated).
An estimated Gini coefficient for Iran is here, and it is not small.