In the ideal scenario, the advance of democracy is simple and happy. A dictatorship falls, the people gain the right to choose their rulers, a modern constitution comes into being and a pluralistic civil society emerges. But in many places, it doesn’t work out quite that way. Democracy is sometimes merely a detour between one oppressive government and another.
That has been the spectacle in three countries that have been in the news lately: Egypt, Ukraine and Venezuela. Each one demonstrates that genuine democracy takes more than elections, even if the elections are free and fair.
It takes sturdy protections for basic freedoms. It takes a broad citizen respect for open debate and dissent. It takes the steady construction of the rule of law. It takes leaders who understand the limits of their rightful authority. All these vital elements are conspicuously missing in these countries.
Egypt was in the vanguard of the 2011 Arab Spring, as mass protests forced out veteran dictator Hosni Mubarak. In 2012, Mohammed Morsi, representing the long-suppressed Muslim Brotherhood, became the first democratically elected president in the country’s long history.
But once in office, Morsi pushed through a new constitution, persecuted opponents and claimed the authority to disregard any court rulings he found inconvenient. Last year, as masses of protesters demanded that he step down, the Egyptian military staged a coup.
The course of events in Ukraine has some clear similarities. In 2010, Viktor Yanukovych won the presidency of the former Soviet republic, but instead of abiding by the democratic norms that most of his countrymen valued, he trampled on them.
He had his elected predecessor jailed on bogus charges and enriched himself and those around him in a frenzy of corruption. It was an example, says Freedom House Vice President Arch Puddington, of an elected government “interpreting victory at the polls as a license to plunder.”
The fatal mistakes came when Yanukovych suddenly abandoned a plan to sign an accord with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. When Ukrainians carried on demonstrations for month after month, the government created heavy penalties for public protest, and, finally, security forces fired on demonstrators, killing dozens. Within days, Yanukovych was forced to flee the capital as his government came crashing down.
The government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro remains in power but under siege by protesters. With inflation raging, basic goods in short supply and the economy sputtering, the country has seen its worst turmoil in a decade. Some 13 people died in the unrest, which Human Rights Watch attributes to “excessive and unlawful use of force” by the government.
Maduro, the elected successor to socialist firebrand Hugo Chavez, who died last year, has continued the regime’s practice of trying to, as Human Rights Watch puts it, “intimidate, censor and prosecute its critics.” The government has advanced its suppression by taking control of the judiciary.
Each of these cases raises the question of when an elected government loses the legitimacy conferred by the consent of the governed. Each of these leaders abused his authority and answered peaceful dissent with heavy-handed coercion and worse. In cases like these, it’s the right of the people to reassert their ultimate authority, even if extralegal means are required — as the founders of the United States understood.
Revolutions, of course, are not necessarily solutions. The Egyptian military has used violent means against its critics following last year’s takeover. There is no guarantee of what will happen now that Ukraine’s government has disintegrated — or what would follow in the unlikely event the Venezuelan regime falls.
Leaders who are elected but turn autocratic may be evicted by popular movements intent on undoing the new tyranny. But those who lead such movements must accept that success means creating true freedom and democracy.
In the end, the only people who deserve to be trusted with power are those who understand that they wield it on the sufferance of their people. Events in Egypt, Ukraine and Venezuela should stand as a warning to overreaching regimes and to those who would replace them.