Christian Caryl

The Streets Ain’t What They Used to Be

Back in the days of the Arab Spring, optimists predicted a bright future for democratic upheavals around the world. But the reality in places like Ukraine, Venezuela, Turkey, and Thailand is far messier.

John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images

Ukraine isn’t the only country where protesters have been busy battling governments lately. In Venezuela, 18 people have been killed during weeks of big demonstrations against the administration of President Nicolás Maduro. In Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, having survived months of intense popular discontent, is fighting for his political life. And although the leader of the street protests in Thailand recently decided to end his supporters’ blockade of downtown Bangkok, the showdown there (which has taken the lives of at least 16 people) is far from over.

In some ways all of these rebellions look like extensions of the Arab Spring that started three years ago. The same motives that drew protesters into Tahir Square and the streets of Tunis and Tripoli still loom large. Irate citizens are taking aim at corruption, economic mismanagement, and autocratic overreach — the same factors that also prompted powerful mass protests last year in countries as diverse as Brazil, Cambodia, and Bulgaria (all of which continue to this day in various forms). One might even include the remarkable opposition rallies in big cities around Russia in 2012 — or perhaps the surprising people power movement that flared up in Bosnia last month. Are we witnessing, perhaps, an oft-predicted “contagion effect” — the flowering of a new era of demands for democratic accountability?

That’s certainly possible. The mere fact that so many people in so many parts of the world have chosen to put their bodies (and in some cases their lives) on the line certainly suggests that citizens are far less content to unthinkingly accept whatever their leaders dish out. The speed with which information zooms around the world unquestionably plays an inspiring role: when you see big crowds of people on the evening news chanting slogans against their own governments, your first reaction is likely to be, “Why can’t we do that here?

Take a closer look, though, and it soon becomes apparent that there’s a big gulf between today’s would-be revolutions and those that unfolded during the Arab Spring. The main difference involves the nature of the regimes that opposition movements are trying to combat. When people took to the streets in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, they were opposing long-entrenched dictators. But the demonstrators in Turkey, Thailand, and Venezuela are fighting elected leaders who still have the backing of big segments of society. This was true in Ukraine as well.

In Thailand, the so-called “Yellow Shirt” protesters who want to bring down the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra cite her alleged corruption as their rationale for attempting to overturn a government that received a comfortable majority of Thais’ votes in the last election. (She’s the sister of the country’s richest man, the now-exiled Thaksin Shinawatra, who continues to control a big chunk of Thailand’s economy from afar.)

But there’s also an ill-concealed regional and class dynamic behind the protests: the opposition draws heavily on middle- and upper-class Thais from the urban south who feel threatened by the Shinawatras’ success in using subsidies and cheap health care to court northerners whose livelihoods are tied closely to the rural economy. In just about any electoral scenario, the much more numerous northerners will usually triumph over the smaller southern elites. This helps to explain why members of the opposition, led by the confusingly named People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), actually tried to prevent Thais from voting in the election held in early February. But Shinawatra has managed to hang on nonetheless — fresh evidence that her own political support among certain segments of the Thai population remains quite strong. Now the PDRC has decided to lift its blockade of downtown Bangkok, vowing instead to pursue corruption charges against the prime minister through the court system.

Corruption is a major ingredient in the continuing political battle in Turkey as well. There, leaked tapes and documents implicating Prime Minister Erdogan in various forms of malfeasance are now inspiring a fresh round of street protests. The prime minister (who of course denies the accusations) is vowing to fight back with every means at his disposal; lately he’s even started talking about banning Facebook and YouTube.

The Turkish protest movement actually began last year. It started when a series of high-handed government decisions prompted many Turks to accuse Erdogan (who, like Shinwatra, has won several consecutive general election victories) of increasingly dictatorial behavior. The biggest practical problem facing the Turkish opposition movement today is that it remains deeply fragmented: no single party or group is capable of offering a unifying focus. In contrast, the prime minister still enjoys the backing of his Islamist AK Party, a well-organized political machine with a strong popular following. It’s small wonder that the most effective challenge to Erdogan’s power now comes not from the protesters but from shadowy rival Islamists within the government.

In Venezuela, meanwhile, demonstrators are confronting a government that narrowly survived a strong challenge from opposition leader Henrique Capriles in last year’s general election. That vote wasn’t fair, given the government’s dominance of the media and its use of "administrative resources," but it was just free enough that the opposition actually had a realistic shot at victory. Yet the spreading discontent over shortages, sky-high crime rates, and soaring inflation doesn’t seem to have dented President Maduro’s core support among his backers in the slums and poor rural communities. Here, as in the other countries, protesters face the unenviable task of dislodging a leader who can claim a certain degree of legitimacy from the ballot box.

But the rising number of casualties among Venezuelan demonstrators should give Maduro pause. The example of Ukraine shows how quickly a popular mandate can evaporate once a leader gives the order to disperse his critics in the streets by force. Ex-President Yanukovych undoubtedly made life much easier for his critics with his blatant corruption and his obvious efforts to accumulate power in his own hands. (It so happens that his greed also alienated many of the oligarchs who still wield the lion’s share of power over Ukraine’s economy — a factor that may have helped to precipitate his fall in ways we still don’t entirely understand.)

Even so, the way the “democratic revolution” that won out in Kiev still demonstrates the complications that can arise when opposition movements face off against leaders who boast the backing of large segments of society. Most of the key posts in the new interim government, for example, went to the party of ex-opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, whose past political record (and questionable wealth) have made her strikingly unpopular among the grassroots protesters in Kiev’s Independence Square. Such divisions within the opposition could render the government unstable during the crucial months ahead.

Similarly, the rump parliament that convened after many Yanukovych supporters deserted the capital overreached, quickly passing legislation (on language and other issues) that was calculated to alienate Yanukovych’s core voters in the Russian-speaking east. The Russians might well have seized the opportunity to grab Crimea anyway — but the revolutionaries’ mishandling of the situation unquestionably played into Moscow’s hands. It will certainly prove much harder for Kiev to build bridges to Ukrainians in the east and preserve national unity as a result.

When are street protesters entitled to push for the overthrow a democratically elected government — and when not? At what point does an elected leader squander — through corruption, incompetence, or authoritarian excess — the legitimacy conferred by the ballot box? When do conflicts between classes or political factions exceed the normal bounds of healthy political competition inherent in democracies?

To some extent, the fact that we have to ask these questions mirrors an age in which many societies aren’t clearcut dictatorships or obvious liberal democracies, but rather something in between: "illiberal democracies" or "hybrid regimes" that combine the trappings of democracy with various authoritarian mechanisms. In such a world, situations like the one in Thailand — where self-described "Democrats" end up blockading polling stations to prevent their fellow citizens from voting — aren’t necessarily as unusual as one might think.

It’s natural for people who live in democratic societies to root for those elsewhere who seem to be fighting for the same values. It was relatively easy to take sides during the Arab Spring, which offered a relatively clear disposition of forces: dictators versus demonstrators. Judging by some of these more recent stories, though, we can’t expect matters to be so clear. The current wave of revolutionary discontent around the world is anything but black and white.

 Twitter: @ccaryl

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