Not Voting but Shouting: Popular Protests, Democratic Legitimacy and Identity Crises
Not Voting but Shouting: Popular Protests, Democratic Legitimacy and Identity Crises
Trump, Biden and the Future of U.S. Multilateralism
Trump, Biden and the Future of U.S. Multilateralism
Commentary / Global 12 minutes

Not Voting but Shouting: Popular Protests, Democratic Legitimacy and Identity Crises

Early 2013 to mid-2014 was a period of anti-government protests. Egyptians, Tunisians, Venezuelans, Ukrainians, Bangladeshis and Thais all took to the streets in angry, and often violent, demonstrations against their rulers. The political backdrop in each place varied: from Egypt’s subverted transition to Tunisia’s more successful one; from chavismo’s struggles without Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, to Europe’s tug-of-war with Russia over Ukraine; from Bangladesh’s febrile personalised politics to the refusal of Thai elites to cede power. But all six protest movements shared some characteristics: first, they all aimed, eventually, to force out the government, not just change its policies; and second, the governments targeted were all democratically elected.

Mohamed Morsi led the Muslim Brotherhood to win Egypt’s first ever competitive presidential polls in 2012. His Islamist brethren, the An-Nahda party headed by Rached Ghannouchi, came to power a year earlier in probably the cleanest vote in Tunisia’s history. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych won narrowly but fairly in 2010, according to international observers. In Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro only squeaked through the last presidential vote in 2013, despite a playing field heavily skewed in his favour; his party won subsequent elections for local councils more convincingly. In Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League won what were arguably the nation’s best-run polls in 2008. In Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra or his associates cruised from victory to victory in the last three elections; few doubt that his populist movement represents the majority of voting Thais.

Yet, by mid-2014, despite their democratic mandates, of the six governments only two, those of Maduro in Venezuela and Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh, were still standing. Egypt’s Morsi and Thai premier Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, were ousted in coups in July 2013 and May 2014, respectively. Tunisia’s Nahda party stepped aside, handing over power to a caretaker government in January 2014. Yanukovych fled from Ukraine in February 2014, as protesters seized Kiev. All of these countries, perhaps bar Tunisia, remain unstable. Ukraine is at war and others will likely face further violent crises.

So are protests now a tool for overthrowing not just tyrants but also elected leaders? Is that a good thing? Why has it happened so frequently over the past months? How should the governments targeted respond? What about outside powers? Foreign policy is, of course, often unprincipled. But is it even clear what principled policy would look like? What line would it tread between popular aspirations and democratic norms, between the realities of power and respect for constitutional rule? When, in other words, does the street trump the ballot box?

Ousting Democratically-elected Governments

Even the freest and fairest elections do not always guarantee good leaders. Most of these six had governed poorly. Some had eroded checks on executive power or passed harsh laws. Some had harassed, even jailed, their opponents. Some were inept, corrupt or populist. Some could not contain violence. Some were accused of cosying up to extremists.

But none could reasonably be called a dictator. Maybe some were headed that way, but they weren’t there yet. None had held power for decades through blatantly rigged polls. None had declared martial law or threatened to circumvent term limits, where they existed. All clearly enjoyed support from much of the population. Protesters by and large were upset not at the absence of democracy, but at its quality; or, in some cases – Thailand, perhaps Egypt and Tunisia too – at its consequences. In each place, they opted out of regular democratic competition and chose protests, rather than votes, to oust incumbents.

So while the six movements borrow civil resistance techniques from the Arab uprisings, colour revolutions and democracy’s “third wave”, they seem different – not least in that they appear at odds with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ provisions that “the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government” and that “this shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections”. Thailand’s anti-government protests in early 2014 more closely resembled those that preceded coups in Iran or Latin America during the Cold War. Few of the others could be portrayed solely as plucky protesters confronting a brutal regime. In some cases, the government was the underdog. All six crises have elements of both popular uprising and unconstitutional change, or attempted change, of government.

That mix poses tricky dilemmas for governments and foreign powers. On the one hand, to assemble is a basic freedom. Denying people the right to use protests to change leaders when other avenues are closed or closing seems unfair. It is easy to empathise with those against whom the rules are so stacked, even by a government more or less freely elected, that contesting for power via the ballot box seems pointless. On the other hand, demonstrations can be destabilising and even deadly. Governments must both protect protesters’ rights and maintain law and order. Protests can be dangerous tools in the wrong hands. They can allow militaries back in, as in Thailand or Egypt. In fact, anyone, from disgruntled oligarchs to meddling neighbours or major powers, can bring people into the streets and use them as a pretext to replace a ruler they dislike. What is to stop protests, rather than regular and predictable cycles of elections, from becoming an accepted tool for changing governments?

These particular protest movements were fuelled by at least four problems common to many countries. First, many states that hold elections, even freely, are still some way from full democracy. The rule of law and civic institutions are too weak or partisan to prevent leaders from concentrating power in their hands once in office – provoking their rivals’ ire and sending opposition supporters into the streets. Second, worsening inequality means that protests can tap rage at corruption and the lack of socio-economic opportunity, resulting in movements that can be as much vertical as horizontal and that may attract diverse groups with diverse interests. Third, new technologies and social media help mobilise people fast.

More fundamentally, though, all six societies – again, like many others – are still struggling with deep divisions over their identity. The protests took place amid intense polarisation, not between ethnicities, religions or sects, but between competing visions of the state – whether its management of power, relationship with Islam, distribution of wealth, history or geopolitical leaning. Voting freely – even, in some cases, repeatedly – had not helped bridge these divides. Nor, however, did protests. In fact, ousting the ruling party has usually made things worse.

How to Respond?

How should an elected government respond to protesters seeking to overthrow it? While all sides should avoid escalation, the initiative usually rests first with those in power (though, paradoxically, governments often refer to their democratic mandate to justify not taking early action). Governments tend to have similar sets of options. Some rarely help: crackdowns or mobilising pro-government militias, for example. More sensible ones include:

  • “Firm but fair”: Allow protests to continue but police any violence or attempts to disrupt public life and economic activity, thus aiming to sap support for demonstrations. The success of this obviously depends on security forces’ capability, discipline and loyalty, and on protesters’ stamina.
  • Dialogue: Talk to the opposition or protest leaders to explore ways to end demonstrations. Early dialogue almost always makes sense, and can take the sting from demonstrations, though governments may use talks as a stalling tactic to avoid necessary concessions. A formal national dialogue may be necessary to address underlying disputes, particularly when other democratic channels have failed to get at them.
  • International mediation: Where no national actor is trusted enough to mediate effectively, invite the UN, regional powers or others to assist. (Of these six cases, perhaps only Tunisia’s trade unions fulfilled this role; in the others, monarchs or militaries arbitrated, but mostly in pursuit of their own interests.) Governments usually resist mediation that implies they and the protesters are equals.
  • A commission of inquiry: Set up a body to examine protesters’ grievances or, after violent unrest, seek to establish facts and propose remedies or sanctions. Opposition and protest leaders should have some say in the commission’s mandate and composition. A parliamentary committee or international fact-finding mission might play a similar role.
  •  Policy concessions: Offer reform – usually to curb executive power, open political space or end repressive measures. The challenge is usually to persuade governments that concessions are required; and to convince protesters that pledges are genuine but not an invitation to push further.
  • Power sharing: Concede anything from cabinet positions to a more formal deal on a unity government. This is difficult unless protesters are reasonably cohesive and can nominate representatives, and that there is at least some national consensus on how to move forward.
  • Early elections: Bring forward elections, potentially also agreeing, with opposition and protest leaders, to a transitional government to rule until then. This is a more dramatic step; in some cases perhaps necessary but with the risk of setting a dangerous precedent.

A government can, of course, adopt a combination. It could offer to share power and establish a commission of inquiry, for example, or police violence while exploring concessions. Dialogue or international mediation can – usually should – lead to other policies. As ever, the right mix varies between cases.

In practice, few of the six governments drew from the options above – at least not early enough. Egyptian President Morsi mostly buried his head in the sand when facing mounting opposition. Had he offered concessions earlier, his Muslim Brotherhood party might have held on to some power (though the brutality it has suffered since suggests that Morsi’s room for manoeuvre was slimmer than appeared at the time). Tunisia’s An-Nahda party took a different tack. Facing polarisation that was less extreme, and threatened by both the Muslim Brotherhood’s demise in Egypt and Gulf powers’ growing hostility toward Islamists, An-Nahda leaders talked to their rivals, agreeing on a new Constitution and a technocratic government to rule until fresh elections.

In Thailand, Yingluck Shinawatra, certainly more than her brother, tried to reconcile with her opponents – but to no avail. Thailand’s military rulers were determined to keep her party from power despite its majority support and despite trying, but failing, to do so the last time they seized power, in 2006. In Ukraine, Yanukovych appears to have first clamped down hard and violently, then agreed with opposition leaders to curb his powers and hold an early vote – but too late. By then, protesters would accept only his departure.

In Venezuela, the Maduro government’s clumsy response to admittedly violent protests in late 2013 and early 2014 initially strengthened opposition hardliners, who explicitly advocated deposing it. The government then agreed to regionally facilitated dialogue, which stalled. It still looks unlikely to make any concessions that could jeopardise its grip on power. In Bangladesh too, the Awami League government, also facing violent rallies, resisted dialogue and offered little, leading its rivals to boycott elections in January 2014 and sparking further street clashes. The vitriolic struggle between the government and opposition, including over the narrative of the country’s birth, continues unabated.

Legitimacy and Power

All six crises were complicated by competing claims of legitimacy. Governments – and their allies in and out of the country – pointed to their electoral mandates and demonstrators’ disregard for constitutional rule. Protesters accused the regimes of abusing power and said they had lost popular backing. Making objective assessments of such claims can be challenging. Both sides usually assert majority support. Estimates of numbers of protesters vary wildly. Determining the gravity of abuses of power is difficult; understanding how repressive measures may impact a vote before ballots are cast even more so. But usually some conclusions are possible.

The complaints of the Bangladeshi or even Venezuelan oppositions, both of whom might have a shot at winning elections on a level playing field, seem more justified, for example, than those of the opposition Thai Democratic Party, which represents a privileged minority, last won an election in the 1980s and still shows little desire to widen its base. Presumably, analysis along these lines – attempting to evaluate competing claims — could be the basis for setting policy for foreign powers that is, at least in part, principled.

In reality, though, who comes out on top rarely has much to do with legitimacy. The street wins when protesters prove more powerful than the government: when they can muster numbers; sometimes when they have a dedicated core willing to use violence; and, most important, when they can attract allies in – or are proxies for – the security forces, judiciary, other parts of the state apparatus or outside powers. Of the six, the leader with the clearest popular mandate – Yingluck Shinawatra in Thailand – fell, despite her dialogue with the opposition and concessions. The two with arguably the shakiest mandates, and who offered protesters least – in Bangladesh and Venezuela – survived. Might decided, not legitimacy.

Nor did legitimacy much influence regional or major powers. Most, if they reacted, did so according to their interests – or at least perceptions of legitimacy tended to align handily with interests. Brussels saw Ukraine’s Maidan protests very differently to Moscow. In Ankara, the ouster of Egypt’s President Morsi was a coup; in Riyadh, it was welcome; the U.S. and Europe couldn’t decide; and the African Union suspended Egypt, albeit temporarily. The 2014 Thai coup elicited barely a peep of condemnation from the region, though some from farther afield. Although Venezuela’s upheaval serves no Latin American leader; the region’s inability to resolve it is mostly due to divergent views on who is to blame and what a solution should look like.

Preventing More of Them?

Early and active engagement by regional powers and the wider international community, ideally before protests turn violent, can, in some cases, help bring parties together. Prevention, though, also means addressing underlying problems – including winner-takes-all governance, weak rule of law, inequality, and conflicting visions of the state.

There is, by now, a standard, even prosaic, list of prescriptions. Politicians should agree on and pledge to respect rules before elections; offer broader-based representation; give all main groups in society a say in decisions about fundamental or contentious issues, like revenue from national resources; ensure that key political appointments enjoy wide support; guarantee the opposition a role in setting policy and spending; devolve power when groups enjoy geographically based support; not lock up or marginalise opponents; respect term limits.

Governments should, in other words, govern better, or at least less exclusively. Western and regional powers, where they can, should nudge them along. They must speak out early and often about government abuses, but also try to hold the line on unconstitutional changes of government – ideally before they happen. Afterwards, the choices between condemnation, engagement, or a hodgepodge of both are all bad options. Over time, strengthening democratic institutions, unsurprisingly, offers the best protection.

These ideas – improving governance, building institutions, speaking out against backsliding – are hardly new; the main obstacle is not identifying them but persuading those with power to adopt them when incentives tend to push the other way. Nor would they help everywhere – such as when elites in Thailand simply reject majority rule. But given how destabilising protests have proved as a method of succession, promoting earlier and more forcefully policies that make them less likely is all the more important. Conversely, when crowds do gather, major powers should be wary of backing those clamouring for regime change, however much that aligns with geopolitical ends. A wiser strategy would usually be to press the government to talk and make concessions, and to press protesters to wait for an election.

The protests raise questions, too, about governance systems. Majority rule works when losers of elections can reasonably hope to win them again. But it appears less suited to societies divided and with political cultures and institutions too weak to guarantee protections for those without power. It seems especially risky during transitions, when power is shifting from one group to others and trust between them is low. Power sharing, a common alternative, is no silver bullet either. Nor, as Thailand and Bangladesh show, is parliamentary democracy. But a more inclusive cabinet might have helped in Egypt, and offers a way – albeit one that looks remote– out of both Venezuela’s and Bangladesh’s crises. Certainly, states so conflicted should avoid vesting too much power in the executive.

Perhaps most important, how can societies align, or at least accommodate, competing visions of their national identities? What can help leaders see that as necessary and worth compromising for? That poor countries must bridge divides after ethnic or religious violence has long been recognised. But the rise in anti-government demonstrations shows the peril of such divisions even in middle-income countries that vote but remain caught between authoritarian and democratic rule; and even where cleavages are not ethnic or religious. The optimal way of tackling them – whether a national dialogue, constituent assembly, elite bargain or another – remains unclear; as does how that process sits alongside the rough and tumble of multiparty democracy. What is clear is that as long as deep-seated divisions linger, we should expect neither elections nor protests – and least of all military rule – to bring stability.

This previously unpublished article was submitted in July 2014 as a discussion paper to the Electoral Integrity Initiative, an initiative of the Kofi Annan Foundation.

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