Behind a Pattern of Global Unrest, a Middle Class in Revolt

Police form a barrier in Independence Square on Feb. 19 in Kiev Photograph by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

For months now, protestors have gathered in the capitals of many developing nations—Turkey, Ukraine, Thailand, Venezuela, Malaysia, and Cambodia, among others—in demonstrations united by some key features. In nearly all these places, protestors are pushing to oust presidents or prime ministers they claim are venal, authoritarian, and unresponsive to popular opinion. Nearly all these governments, no matter how corrupt, brutal, and autocratic, actually won election in relatively free polls. And in nearly all these countries the vast majority of demonstrators hail from cosmopolitan areas: Kiev, Bangkok, Caracas, Istanbul, and other cities. The streets seem to be filled with the very people one might expect to support democracy rather than put more nails in its coffin.

This has been termed the protests of “the economic winners” and the revenge of the elites because of the composition of the activists. But these demonstrations actually include not just the wealthiest but much of the middle class in these countries, showing that the protests are more broadly based than often assumed. Still, these middle-class demonstrators pose a challenge to the longstanding theory that democratic change is driven by the growth of the middle class.

To be sure, the elected governments in Thailand, Ukraine, and Venezuela aren’t classified as full democracies by watchdog organizations, such as Freedom House. While relatively free and fair polls put these leaders into office, in office these leaders have gerrymandered political systems, used money to buy votes, crushed media outlets and civil society, and generally acted like elected autocrats. But leaders such as Thailand’s Yingluck Shinawatra or Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukoych have also built broad enough bases among the poor, using populist rhetoric and policies to cut poverty to win elections. The willingness of demonstrators in some of these nations (though not all) to bypass democratic politics for street justice has further undermined democracy and added fuel to violent crises.

Although Thailand’s capital has been occupied since last November by a group of antigovernment protestors calling itself the People’s Democratic Reform Committee, in the past week the situation in Bangkok has become exceptionally tense. As the government tries to evict the protestors from sites near government offices, clashes have broken out, with parts of Bangkok becoming like free-fire zones—both police and demonstrators appear to be shooting at each other. Five people have been killed and at least 70 injured in the past week in Bangkok.

At virtually the same time, Ukraine’s and Venezuela’s protests have come to a head. Earlier this week in Kiev, riot police stormed groups of demonstrators camped in Independence Square. The police reportedly shot at protestors with live bullets, while the protestors set the square ablaze and tossed Molotov cocktails. The battles have resulted in 26 deaths this week alone in Kiev. In Caracas, meanwhile, antigovernment protestors also have battled security forces throughout the past two weeks, leaving at least four dead and opposition leader Leopoldo López in jail.

Why are these demonstrations exploding now, when protestors in places such as Thailand have been organizing against their governments for months, if not years? For one, these governments have shored up their backing from important international players, which may make them feel more secure in cracking down. In Ukraine’s case, the government has been bolstered by billions in assistance from Russia. In Thailand and Malaysia, the governments have benefited from the tacit support of the U.S., which has expressed support for the results of democratic processes. And hard-liners in the police in some of these nations have for weeks called for tougher tactics. In Thailand, for example, where the government has until now mostly let protestors take over and shut down ministries, businesses, and intersections, midlevel police officers have pushed senior commanders to take more aggressive measures—and those measures are now being carried out.

Protestors also have become more indebted to hard-liners in their camps and thus more willing to use violence. In Ukraine, as the number of protestors has dwindled somewhat over the past two months, the rump group included the hardest-core elements willing to wait out a brutal winter. In Thailand, the size of the demonstrations has fallen by more than half since early January, but the remaining protestors apparently include shadowy instigators armed with assault rifles concealed in sacks and grenades. Some hard-line Thai antigovernment activists also seem to believe that if they can provoke major bloodshed in Bangkok, the military will be forced to step in and carry out yet another in Thailand’s long history of coups.

Although the middle-class revolts have much in common, some of these crises will be more easily resolved than others.

In Malaysia and Cambodia, protestors have remained mostly nonviolent, and the opposition appears willing to work for gradual change through the political system. The opposition in Malaysia and Cambodia also enjoy far wider support among the public—not just among urbanites—than the demonstrators in Thailand or Ukraine. In all likelihood, political systems in Malaysia and Cambodia will gradually evolve toward full democracy as older, charismatic, and autocratic-minded leaders, such as longtime Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, pass from the scene.

In Venezuela, too, this process of real and gradual change has begun, with the death last year of former President Hugo Chávez, who had the charisma and populist bona fides to keep the opposition divided. His successor, President Nicolás Maduro, is a poor copy of El Comandante, and his government likely will eventually be ousted through democratic politics as Maduro loses support among not only the middle classes but also the poor.

Even Turkey and Ukraine could see some resolution on the horizon. Although Prime Minister Reccip Tayep Erdogan has over the past decade amassed enormous powers, Turkey’s democratic institutions and culture have proven resilient. Erdogan appears unlikely to remain in power, by getting himself chosen president, as he once hoped. Turkey’s place in the international arena also provides a push toward peaceful and democratic problem-solving. Although the European Union has repeatedly delayed considering Turkey’s accession to the bloc, many Turks still desire to join the EU, which requires upholding democratic norms, and Turkey would be loath to give up its status as the model of a successful democracy in the Muslim world.

Ukraine, too, faces significant international pressure to resolve its crisis through democratic means. Although the government has won the backing of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, Russia’s anemic economy offers little for Ukraine in the long run compared with closer ties to Europe, which also would come with demands to uphold democratic standards. The EU is already considering applying sanctions to Ukraine after this week’s violence.

Thailand, meanwhile, suffers from the most intractable problems. Unlike in Turkey or Ukraine, debilitating protests have become far more entrenched in Thai politics. Cycles of violent protests and counterprotests, which frequently paralyze Bangkok, have been going on now for nearly a decade. Thailand also is more immune to outside pressure for democratization than such places as Ukraine, since Thailand is a U.S. ally and the second-largest economy in Southeast Asia. Unlike the EU, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations doesn’t pressure its members to uphold norms of democracy.

Both the government and protesters in Thailand have ruled out any possibility of compromise, an unwavering stand even more extreme than those taken by demonstrators elsewhere. The no-compromise rhetoric has made it almost impossible for moderates on the two sides to sit down and talk, emboldening the hardest-liners. In the end, unfortunately, Thailand’s crisis likely will be resolved through more bloody street violence or some kind of coup.

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