Public Protest as a Road to Democracy?

by J. Paul Barker

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Introduction

The most vivid picture of a collapsing authoritarian regime  is a large mass protest, a public square full of chanting protesters  banners calling for freedom and the removal of a cruel leader. From riots outside government buildings in Tunisia and the thousands that filled Tahrir square in Cairo, to the protests in Benghazi, Libya and the “Days of Rage” that were organized in Syria and other countries across the Middle East and North Africa, 2011 has been marked by large-scale public protests. These events led Time magazine to name “The Protestor” as its person of the year.

The protests have largely proved effective at removing authoritarian leaders from power. Multi-decade authoritarian rule in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia were toppled during the year. The question remains, however, what will be built in its place? Will the public protests result in democracy and political freedoms or will they flounder in chaos and ultimately fall back into some form of authoritarian rule? What does history have to tell us as a guide for the future?

This article will look at studies from the past that have examined the role of public protest in countries transitioning to democracy[1]. This study will consider, negatively, what were the defining factors in public protests that failed to produce democracy and, positively, what elements were beneficial to producing a stable democracy by means of public protest. Given the context of a region marked by protests an examination of what factors can help ensure they lead to the road to democracy is of great value.

States in Transition

Before examining factors that shape the results of public protests, a theoretical introduction of the process of moving from authoritarianism to democracy needs to be made. In terms of political science a democratic state is one that provides for the freedoms of the governed.

It includes an electoral system that is free and fair and allows for large-scale political participation. Yet it is certainly much more than just elections, but also freedom of civil society to order itself and operate without government repression, for individual choice and expression. The country is governed by the rule of law, not the whims of the elite.

Huntington describes democratic systems as having a “common institutional core that establishes their identity.”  Authoritarian regimes – be they in the form of a one party government, a military regime, or a personal dictatorship – are defined by the lack of that institutional core[2]. This study is concerned with how regimes move from one to the other. Beginning with an authoritarian regime and ending with a strong and stable consolidated democracy. This process has been termed as a “transitioning democracy” to provide an analytical term to make sense of how this process happens.

The concepts distinguishing a non-democratic, fully democratic, and transitioning democracy are not always easily discerned. There is overlap between those things that spell the crumbling of an authoritarian regime and the elements of democracy that is not fully consolidated or still transitioning. There is no clear-cut path, which can be established as the way to get from authoritarianism to democracy, and this is the gap that transition theorists are trying to fill[3]. There is not a universal road-map to democracy that can be packaged up and exported.

Some would argue that transition is primarily initiated from above. They would say it most often comes about as a result of breakdown within the regime itself that leads to its collapse rather than through pressure from below or from external factors. In his study of how countries democratize, looking at 35 countries which shifted from authoritarian to democratic systems of government during the period of 1974-1990, Huntington seems to agree with this conclusion.

Huntington classified only 6 of the 35 countries as a “Replacement” where the opposition group took the lead in bringing about democracy leading to an overthrow or a collapse of the regime[4]). His study of these “third wave” countries found that the majority of change took place either through “Transformation” or “Transplacement” rather “Replacement.”

It is not only Huntington that makes this observation. In a study looking at the economic conditions that lead to the breakdown of authoritarian regimes Ruth Kricheli and Yair Livine also point to the prevalence of elite coups rather than mass revolutions to overthrow a regime[5]  In further support, Smith notes that “transitions from above have been most likely to lead to democracy. Revolutions may overthrow authoritarian regimes, but rarely lead to democracy”[6]. While public protest and opposition from the ground level may be successful at tearing down an existing structure, which may be a necessary aspect of the democratization process, it is the top-down transitions that analysts recognize as being able to successfully transition to a democratic state.

Why has that been the case? What is it that causes popular protests to be unsuccessful in producing democracy while top-down transitions have been successful? Are there discernible characteristics that can indicate if a public protest movement is likely to fail or succeed?

Why Public Protests Fail

There are a number of factors that may be responsible for why or why not wide-scale public protests may fail to lead to a consolidated democracy. The factors that we will focus on are particular to the opposition movement rather than external factors such as income levels, or education, human development measures, or the particular regime though these may certainly be factors that influence the successful establishment of democracy. At least five factors can be highlighted that may be influential for why a public protest movement may be unlikely to produce democracy or, conversely, be measuring sticks to indicate the potential success of a transition.

Lack of Leadership

Greece 1973

One of the primary difficulties of civil society under authoritarian regimes is the inability of development of strong leadership outside of the ruling regime. Ruling parties make it especially difficult for an opposition group to develop leadership. Huntington points out that students are the universal opposition of regimes of any sort[7]. While student groups are useful in mobilizing opposition among some segments of the population they tend to lack the experience and ability to reach broader demographics and, without support from other groups, have the potential to be repressed. Huntington references the violent response that students faced in Greece in 1973, Burma in 1988, and China in 1989. Despite a large-scale student movement the regime was able to oppose the protesting.

While on the other hand if there is a leader who is able to garner support the opposition can be successful in challenging the regime. Argentina in the 1980s provides an example of where a country was able to find a charismatic leader, in Carlos Menem, who was able to guide the country through a difficult transition to democracy[8]. In a study of sub-Saharan African countries that experienced unrest in the early 1990s the same theme emerged of the importance of leadership for a revolution to last[9].

Unless the opposition movement is able to generate some sort of leadership structure able to represent a wide margin of the people and with the capabilities to successfully guide the country through its transition process, the protests may have difficulty in producing a stable democracy. This leadership must be able to not only point out short-comings but provide beneficial solutions and services required. This points to the second characteristic of most failed protest movements. 

Institutional Weakness

Another factor that influences the outcome of public protests leading to democracy is based on the relative strength or weakness of the civil society and institutions of the state. Under authoritarian rule the ruling party is responsible for most aspects of life. Those loyal to the party occupy the vast majority of civil service positions. The control of the bureaucracy is one of the means by which an authoritarian leader maintains his rule in the state.

This is where Smith describes some of the extensive control of the state by the government. “Authoritarian regimes, single party more than military, mobilize the public through closely controlled activities – in trade unions, youth groups, business associations, cultural bodies and political parties”[10]. Besides occupying the political sector, education, economics, trade, development, all parts of life are prone to be connected to the state and organized by the state.

One result of this is that even when a large sector of the public becomes disenchanted with the regime and is willing to engage in mass protest they lack the institutional organization to be able to effectively sustain the state independent of the ruling party.

Gill considers this element of the society in his theory of transition. The arrangement of society as either “atomized” or “civil” is a key factor in determining the likelihood of a successful transition to democratic rule. A “civil” society is one that possesses independent groups or movements that give space for various interests to be represented. An “atomized” society is one that lacks those kinds of organizations[11]. The more developed civil society is the greater the possibilities of utilizing existing structures in society to transition towards democratic development.

Looking again at the case of Africa, Bratton and van de Walle recognize that the transition to democracy is contingent on the ability of civil society to develop institutions and organizations, independent of the regime[12]. If the society lacks the ability to form stable institutions the likelihood of moving from authoritarianism into democracy is greatly diminished.

Factionalism

Another problem that typically faces opposition movements in their efforts to move toward democracy is the factionalism that exists among the opposition. This problem is typically minimized during the periods of opposition to the authoritarian state and only really surfaces during the aftermath of the collapse.

It is relatively easy for groups with competing ideologies and viewpoints to join together in protest against a government. The requirements for cooperation are relatively low because they share a common goal – removal of the current regime. Once that takes place the process becomes increasingly difficult.

Without the history of a democratic system and relatively new or weak political institutions the negotiation process between various groups and ideological camps can become a stumbling block on the road to democracy. There is a variety of examples of this problem.  Han considers the factionalism that contributed to the early struggles for democracy in South Korea in the early 1950s[13]. The Polish case also demonstrates the potential factionalism has for creating difficulties in the democracy movement.

The movement began with a wide-scale support for removal of the old regime. “In Poland, significant mobilization potential provided the basis for widespread protest and a frontal challenge to the state”[14]. In 1989 the state was confronted with a large-scale opposition movement that was finally willing to confront the state. The Solidarity movement was able to achieve some concessions from the state and had even been able to develop some sense of organizational structure and leadership. When the movement tried to enter the political process, now at a period where the requirements were higher than just opposing the repressive government, the factional differences came to the surface and the fragmentation led to the movement achieving little real success despite its initial large support[15]. What began with promise and great potential became bogged down as the cooperative requirements increased.

The potential for factionalism to sidetrack the process of democratization is confirmed by Freedom House in their study of 67 countries that have experienced a transition from authoritarian governments over the past 30 years. The absence of a strong and cohesive civil society showed a remarkably much higher likelihood for the repression of freedoms[16]. If a society is factionalized and is not able to find a significant amount of cohesion the democratic movement may be in jeopardy. 

Instability

Another factor that can prove to be a hindrance to public protest movements producing a functioning democracy is the possibility of instability. This fear of destabilizing a regime has sometimes led outside countries to support authoritarian leaders at the cost of democratic movements. This has been a criticism levelled at the United States especially in terms of their policy in the Middle East on a number of occasions[17]. The fear of instability developing into protracted violence is a difficult obstacle for opposition groups to counteract.

In a period of turmoil during the protest of an authoritarian leader or in the aftermath of his demise the likelihood for chaos is high. Oftentimes this instability can open the door for another type of authoritarian regime to fill the void simply because it offers stability though not necessarily any real increase in the level of democratic means by which it will govern.

The military is one institution that has often played the role of providing a stable hand. Smith acknowledges that in some circumstances of political instability the military represents the only organized and effective body[18]. This may not necessarily be negative but has the potential to limit the attainment of freedoms pursued by democratic protesters.

In a study on the results of the death of a long-ruling authoritarian leader, Betts and Huntington conclude that in nearly all cases there is a period of instability after an authoritarian leader leaves office, whether it was by way of forced removal or death due to natural causes. In their conclusion outside countries, in most cases, are able to do relatively little to preempt or influence the coming period of instability. While instability occurred in either case the most volatile and negative effects have usually resulted from overthrows of the authoritarian leader rather than death by natural causes[19]. These realities help to inform the fear of instability that may result from change by public protest.

The greater the resistance by the regime and the greater the amount of instability in the fall of an authoritarian leader the more difficult it will be to put the society back on a path to stability. The longer the instability continues the more it becomes likely that the military will feel the need to step in and offer a guiding hand. Sometimes this is in fact a welcome gesture and is needed until the civil institutions can be organized and elections can be completed, at other times it may spell the end of a democratic movement[20]. The period of instability that is often the result of public protest is another difficulty that helps to explain the failure of public protests to bring about democracy.

Use of Violence

Another factor that tends to be an obstacle to public protests leading to democracy is when the opposition movement uses violence in their opposition of the regime. Often it is the use of force by the government against its people that incites mass protests. If the opposition movement takes up violence against the government the likelihood of it producing a democracy is greatly diminished. This was one of the strongest conclusions drawn by Freedom House in their survey of countries that achieved a successful democracy.

According to their research, when the opposition movement engages in violence against the authoritarian regime the likelihood of producing a stable democracy decreases by more than two-thirds[21]. The example of Romania showed that the violence involved with the overthrow of Ceausecu out of revenge for the harsh measures related to his dictatorship, along with other obstacles to democracy mentioned above, were responsible for the difficulty democracy had in taking root[22] .

There are a number of reasons that bolster the claim that the use of violence by the opposition is an obstacle to moving towards democracy. Stephen Zunes gives three in his article on the strategy of unarmed insurrections[23]:

1.         The use of violence usually pushes undecided parties to favor the regime and also justifies the regime’s use of force to repress the opposition.

2.         The use of violence isolates some members of the society who are not capable or willing to participate in an armed resistance.

3.         The use of violence also raises questions about the nature of the democratic order that the opposition movement is striving to install.

From a strategic perspective, as well as a financial and an ethical perspective, the use of force by opposition movements is actually a road block to the success of bringing about a democracy by public protests.

The preceding section has highlighted a number of the characteristics of opposition movements that are unsuccessful in translating a wide-spread protest and opposition movement into a democratic system of governance. There is potential for success though and the following section will highlight some of those necessary elements.

Necessary Elements to Succeed

What are the elements that can lead from the crowd chanting in the streets to the crowd casting their votes at the ballot box to the crowd living in a secure, stable, and democratic society? Why is it that transitions from one kind of dictatorship to another kind of dictatorship account for 43% of all regime transitions in the world between 1950-2006[24]? What can lead to more regime transitions to democracy?

First, we should recognize that public protests and “people movements” really do matter and have been a driving force in those countries that have made the transition to democracy. According to the Freedom House research in more than 70% of states (50/67) that made the transition from a dictatorial systems to democracy civic resistance was a key factor in the process[25]. What elements does that civic resistance need to be effective? There must be strong leadership from the opposition in the civic resistance movement. Top-down transitions guided by “elites” produced relatively minor gains in freedoms compared to those transitions that were driven by strong civic leadership (+1.1 points compared to +2.7 points on the 7 point rating scale)[26]. Of the 35 countries that Freedom House now ranks as “Free” 32 of them possessed a strong civic leadership that was bottom-up not top-down[27] .

One of the difficulties that opposition movements have is the relative weakness of their institutions. To overcome this they should try to enlist the support of leaders who are no longer supporters of the regime. Huntington offers this as part of his advice for democratizers: “make particular efforts to enlist business leaders, middle-class professionals, religious figures, and political leaders, most of whom probably supported the creation of the authoritarian system. The more ‘respectable’ and ‘responsible’ the opposition appears, the easier it is to win supporters”[28].

The opposition cannot be too picky about where it garners its experience from, especially in a society that has been especially oppressive of independent institutions. This also applies in the efforts to combat factionalism. From the outset, the opposition must promote efforts to cultivate unity among the groups, not just in opposing the regime but in reshaping the new society. The regime will often try to emphasize the differences to secure their rule, and the ability to create functioning coalitions will be one of the most difficult and earliest challenges that the new leadership will face[29]. It should be articulated that the system they are working together to establish, is one that allows them the freedom to articulate their vision for society, and if they fail to agree to set up that system they are restricting their own freedom to shape the society for the future.

During this fragile stage of the transition process the opposition leadership must do all they can to minimize the instability of the transition period. The longer the chaos extends the more opportunity for individuals to become disillusioned with the prospects and turn to a stabilizing – but often authoritarian – force like the military, or independent militias, or other “strong-man” stabilizing figure. When the civil society and institutions are weak the situation is ripe for military intervention but a stable society greatly decreases the likelihood of them intervening in politics[30].

One final element that correlates strongly to the success of public protest movements transitioning to democracy and not defaulting to authoritarian rule is the commitment to non-violence by the opposition movement.

This conclusion was supported by the data collected by Freedom House. In their report they found significantly higher increases in freedom when the opposition did not respond violently to violence by the state. In the 12 countries where the state used violence and the opposition movement did not there are no instances of reversion to a “not free” status but they have continued making gains towards a stabilized democracy[31].

Zunes makes this argument from a strategic standpoint that non-violence can be seen as a more successful tactic than even a well-armed and well-organized military resistance[32]. In his suggestions to democratizers Huntington again advocates for this tactic. “Practice and preach nonviolence. Among other things, this will make it easier to for you to win over security forces: soldiers do not tend to be sympathetic to people who have been hurling Molotov cocktails at them”[33]. It is also more successful in attracting the support of the full range of society and the support of the international community.

Though non-violence can be extremely difficult on a personal level, and perhaps because of that fact, the importance of it is continually restated. The ability for the opposition to restrain from violence is a promising sign of things to come for the society.

Putting these necessary elements together it can be argued both from historical evidence and analyst opinion if there is a strong cohesive coalition that is committed to nonviolence on the evidence of past cases (18 instances) the possibility for a dramatic gain in freedom (3.94 points on the 7 point rating scale) is likely[34]. Thus the right kind of public protest can indeed be a sign of a starting down the road to democracy.

Conclusion

What does history and research tell us about the contribution of public protests to the transition from authoritarianism to democracy? It gives us a number of factors to be conscious of that are potential pitfalls to the process. It also provides some suggestions as to how the opposition can organize itself to start down the road to democracy and not take a detour into chaos or the replacement of a new authoritarian regime.

When we see the crowds chanting in the square calling for the removal of the dictator our hopes should not rest simply on the noise of the opposition but we need to look underneath to how the opposition movement is constructed, what values they hold, and what tactics they are willing – and not willing – to employ. A society that is willing to work together to attract the input of a variety of groups, takes advantage of any existing institutional structures, is committed to non-violence, even in the face of state violence, and can find some leadership structures is well positioned to pursue democratic development. While it is certainly challenging history does offer hope that public protest can indeed be a crucial component of setting a country on the road to democracy.

Bibliography

Andersen, Kurt. 2011. “Person of the Year: The Protestor” Time, December 14, 2011. Accessed January 06, 2012. http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/

0,28804,2101745_2102132,00.html.

Arias, Maria Fernades. 1995. “Charismatic Leadership and the Transition to Democracy: The Rise of Carlos Saul Menem in Argentine Politics” Texas Papers on Latin America No. 95-02. Accessed January 06, 2012. http://lanic.utexas.edu/project/etext/llilas/tpla/9502.pdf.

Betts, Richard and Samuel Huntington. 1985-1986. “Dead Dictators and Rioting Mobs: Does the Demise of Authoritarian Dictators Lead to Political Instability?” International Security Vol. 10 No. 3: 112-146.

Bratton, Michael and Nicolas van de Walle. 1992. “Popular Protests and Political Reform in Africa.” Comparative Politics Vol. 24 No.2: 419-442.

Han, Sung-ju. 1974. The failure of Democracy in South Korea. Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Huntington, Samuel. 2009. “How Countries Democratize” Political Science Quarterly Volume 124, No 9: 31-69.

Karatnycky, Adrian and Peter Ackerman. 2005. “How Freedom is Won: From Civic Resistance to Durable Democracy.” Freedom House. Accessed January  07,  2012 http://freedomhouse.org/template.cfm?page=383&report=29.

Kricheli, Ruth and Yair Livine. “Mass Revolutions vs. Elite Coups” APSA 2009 Toronto Meeting Paper, Toronto, Ontario, September 3-6, 2009. http://ssrn.com/abstract=1449852.

Magaloni, Beatriz and Ruth Kricheli. 2010. “Political Order and One Party Rule.” Annual Review of Political Science Vol. 13:123-143.

Misztal, Bronislaw and J. Craig Jenkins. 1995. “Starting from Scratch is Not Always the Same: The Politics of Protest and the Postcommunist Transitions in Poland and Hungary.” In The Politics of Social Protest: Comparative Perspectives on States and Social Movements edited by J. Craig Jenkins and Bert Klandermans. London: University College London.

Peceny, Mark and Jeffrey Pickering. 2006. “Can liberal intervention build liberal democracy?” In Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding in Post-War Societies: Sustaining the Peace edited by T. David Mason and James D. Meernik. New York: Routledge.

Smith, B. C. 2003. Understanding Third World Politics: Theories of Political Change and Development. Second Edition. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Zunes, Stephen. 1994. “Unarmed Insurrections against Authoritarian Governments in the Third World: A New Kind of Revolution. Third World Quarterly Vol. 15 No. 3: 403-426


[1] This article will draw much of the survey material from two works. The first is the 2005 “How Freedom is Won” study by Freedom House which studies 67 countries where transitions from authoritarianism has occurred. Adrian Karatnycky and Peter Ackerman. 2005. “How Freedom is Won: From Civic Resistance to Durable Democracy.” Freedom House. The second is Samuel Huntington’s study “How Countries Democractize” He examines 35 countries that transitioned to democracy between the mid-1970s and 1990. Huntington, Samuel. 2009. “How Countries Democratize” Political Science Quarterly Volume 124, No 9: 31-69.

[2] Samuel Huntington, “How Countries Democratize” Political Science Quarterly 124 (2009): 32-34

[3] B.C Smith, Understanding Third World Politics: Theories of Political Change and Development. Second Edition. (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003), 252-253

[4] Samuel Huntington, “How Countries Democratize” Political Science Quarterly 124 (2009): 34-35

[5] Ruth Kricheli and Yair Livine. “Mass Revolutions vs. Elite Coups” APSA 2009 Toronto Meeting Paper, Toronto, Ontario, September 3-6, 2009

[6] B.C Smith, Understanding Third World Politics: Theories of Political Change and Development. Second Edition. (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003), 253

[7] Samuel Huntington, “How Countries Democratize” Political Science Quarterly 124 (2009): 56

[8] Maria Fernades Arias “Charismatic Leadership and the Transition to Democracy: The Rise of Carlos Saul Menem in Argentine Politics” Texas Papers on Latin America No. 95-02 (1995)

[9] Michael Bratton and Nicolas van de Walle “Popular Protests and Political Reform in Africa.” Comparative Politics: 24 (1992) 420-421

[10] B.C Smith, Understanding Third World Politics: Theories of Political Change and Development. Second Edition. (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003), 254

[11] Ibid. 256

[12] Michael Bratton and Nicolas van de Walle “Popular Protests and Political Reform in Africa.” Comparative Politics: 24 (1992), 421-423

[13] Sung-ju Han, The failure of Democracy in South Korea (Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1974), 46

[14] Bronislaw Misztal and J. Craig Jenkins “Starting from Scratch is Not Always the Same: The Politics of Protest and the Postcommunist Transitions in Poland and Hungary” (London: University College London, 1995), 164

[15] Ibid. 164-165

[16] Adrian Karatnycky and Peter Ackerman “How Freedom is Won: From Civic Resistance to Durable Democracy.” Freedom House (2005), 6

[17] Mark Peceny and Jeffrey Pickering  “Can liberal intervention build liberal democracy?” (New York: Routledge, 2006), 132

[18] B.C Smith, Understanding Third World Politics: Theories of Political Change and Development. Second Edition. (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003), 174

[19] Richard  Betts and Samuel Huntington “Dead Dictators and Rioting Mobs: Does the Demise of Authoritarian Dictators Lead to Political Instability?” International Security, 10 (1985-1986): 141-143

[20] B.C Smith, Understanding Third World Politics: Theories of Political Change and Development. Second Edition. (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003), 176-179

[21] Adrian Karatnycky and Peter Ackerman “How Freedom is Won: From Civic Resistance to Durable Democracy.” Freedom House (2005), 8

[22] Samuel Huntington, “How Countries Democratize” Political Science Quarterly 124 (2009): 59

[23] Stephen Zunes “Unarmed Insurrections against Authoritarian Governments in the Third World: A New Kind of Revolution, Third World Quarterly, 15(1994): 411-418

[24] Beatriz Magaloni and Ruth Kricheli “Political Order and One Party Rule.” Annual Review of Political Science, (2010): 125

[25] Adrian Karatnycky and Peter Ackerman “How Freedom is Won: From Civic Resistance to Durable Democracy.” Freedom House (2005), 6

[26] For their study, Freedom Houses ranks countries as “Free,” “Partly Free,” and “Not Free.” They also use a 7 point scale with 1 representing a high level of democratic         political practices and adherence to fundamental civil liberties and 7 being the absence of political rights and systematic human rights violations

[27] Adrian Karatnycky and Peter Ackerman “How Freedom is Won: From Civic Resistance to Durable Democracy.” Freedom House (2005), 7

[28] Samuel Huntington, “How Countries Democratize” Political Science Quarterly 124 (2009): 59-60

[29] Ibid., 60

[30] B.C Smith, Understanding Third World Politics: Theories of Political Change and Development. Second Edition. (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003), 180

[31] Adrian Karatnycky and Peter Ackerman “How Freedom is Won: From Civic Resistance to Durable Democracy.” Freedom House (2005), 19-20

[32] Stephen Zunes “Unarmed Insurrections against Authoritarian Governments in the Third World: A New Kind of Revolution, Third World Quarterly, 15(1994): 403-426

[33] Samuel Huntington, “How Countries Democratize” Political Science Quarterly 124 (2009): 60

[34] Adrian Karatnycky and Peter Ackerman “How Freedom is Won: From Civic Resistance to Durable Democracy.” Freedom House (2005), 9

 

J. Paul Barker has a B.A. in History and M.A. degrees in International Relations and Cross-Cultural Studies. His main focus lies in the convergence of religion and international affairs. He is an associate editor at e-International Relations and a freelance writer based in Istanbul.

 

 

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