As most of the world shelters from the novel coronavirus, tens of thousands of brave protesters have been marching through the streets of Minsk and Bangkok for the past several months, defying water cannons, rubber bullets and the risk of imprisonment — or disease. They are demanding the ouster of their autocratic rulers — Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus and Prayuth Chan-ocha of Thailand — and hoping that, like the “people power” movements of dozens of other countries, they will achieve democracy.
Lets hope they do. Sadly, however, the history of the past decade suggests they won’t.
People power, which democratized countries from South Korea and Poland in the 1980s to Georgia and Ukraine in the 2000s and Tunisia in 2010, has been on a losing streak. That’s true even though mass protests proliferated in countries around the world last year and have continued in a few places during 2020 despite the pandemic.
To a large extent, the unrest has been driven by a new generation of young activists who exploit novel communications technologies to sustain movements demanding radical change. They have scored some successes: The prime ministers of Iraq and Lebanon were forced to step down, and the autocratic rulers of Sudan and Algeria were ousted. Protests in Chile led to a referendum Sunday on whether to rewrite the country’s constitution. Corrupt governments fell in Slovakia, Romania and Moldova.
The most significant change, however, came in countries that already were full or partial democracies, such as Chile and Iraq. In the rest, there was ultimately little movement. Algeria got a new president but is still an autocracy; democracy is promised in Sudan but hasn’t yet arrived. The Lebanese prime minister who was forced to resign last year, Saad Hariri, returned to the job on Thursday.
The record of limited results extends back more than a decade. According to Larry Diamond, a Stanford political scientist, there have been 20 instances since 2009 in which autocratic governments were challenged either by mass protests or an unexpected electoral defeat. In only two — Tunisia in 2011 and Ukraine in 2014 — was there a transition to democracy.
“The most common outcome,” Diamond writes in a new article in the journal Democratization, “has been the dashing — and not infrequently, the brutal crushing — of popular hopes and expectations for democratic change.” That’s what happened in Iran, Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Turkey, Zimbabwe and Venezuela, among other places.
Why doesn’t people power work like it used to? Diamond cites a couple of big factors. One is that autocracies have figured out better strategies for blocking “color revolutions,” as Russian leader Vladimir Putin calls them. Among the innovations he and other dictators have adopted: closing down nongovernment groups; blocking pro-democracy funding from the United States and Europe; eliminating independent media, and, when a crisis comes, shutting down the Internet.
Strongmen have also benefited from a strategic insight: Faced with popular protests, they need not choose between surrender, like the Communists of Eastern Europe in 1989, and sending in tanks, as China did at Tiananmen Square. It’s enough simply to survive and persevere, using just enough repression to avoid a storming of the palace. Over time, a steady pressure of arrests and street repression, coupled with false promises of reform, can wear mass movements down. A lack of clear opposition leaders makes it easier.
A model of that is China’s slow-motion suffocation of the protest movement in Hong Kong, which a year ago was bringing hundreds of thousands to the streets every week. Though it hinted at another Tiananmen Square, Beijing never launched one. Instead, its Hong Kong administration ground down the protesters with water cannons, arrests and, eventually, a harsh new security regime. Though Hong Kong’s freedom movement hasn’t given up, its prospects look bleak.
The biggest difference between now and the heyday of people power, says Diamond, is “the international context.” The influence of China and Russia, the world’s biggest autocracies, has been crucial in places such as Belarus and Thailand. The world’s strongest democracy, on the other hand, is missing in action. The United States was a prime mover of democratic revolutions in the 1980s and ’90s; as late as 2011, President Barack Obama responded to mass protests in Egypt by telling dictator Hosni Mubarak he had to go.
President Trump, in contrast, has been friendlier to dictators than he has to their opponents. He has openly embraced the autocratic rulers of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Philippines — all countries where U.S. influence could be crucial. He has been obeisant to Putin and, until recently, heaped praise on China’s Xi Jinping.
As Belarusians and Thais have marched in Minsk and Bangkok this fall, Trump has been silent. If Joe Biden becomes president, he almost certainly won’t be. That might not be enough to revive people power — but at least future contests with the dictatorships will be more even.
Jackson Diehl is deputy editorial page editor of The Post. He is an editorial writer specializing in foreign affairs and writes a biweekly column that appears in print on Mondays.