09 December 2013

The Egyptian Example: democracy in Thailand and Ukraine

This year, Egypt offered the world an alternative form of democracy, detached from long-entrenched concerns with elections and the rule of law. A multitude arose in the nation's capital and incited (or enabled) the military to overthrow a duly-elected president. This month, protesters in the capital cities of Thailand and Ukraine are trying to do the same thing. A multitude in Thailand demands the departure of the head of government, seeing her as the puppet of her hated brother, an exiled former leader. A multitude in Kiev hopes for the fall of a government they accuse of looking the wrong way, towards Russia rather than Europe. This is their second showdown with Viktor Yanukovich, the first being the famous "Orange Revolution" of a few years ago, when he was accused of trying to steal an election with Russian help after poisoning his main opponent. After finally winning an undisputed victory, Yanukovich has opted for stronger economic ties with Russia, Ukraine's main gas supplier, over greater integration with the European Union. Ukraine appears divided geographically and culturally between those who identify with Russia and those who not only identify with Europe but also hate Russia. Kiev identifies with Europe, or at least many Kievans do. Thailand seems more divided along class lines. The Shinawatra family caters to the rural poor with social programs, and the people of the cities, Bangkok most notably, resent that. In both countries, of course, the opposition warns of tyranny. Ukranians fear that Yanukovich may become a dictator to his own people and a puppet of Vladimir Putin; Thais fear that Yingluck Shinawatra will clear the way for her brother to return as the de facto head of government and resume his alleged authoritarian tendencies. The prime minister has called for early parliamentary elections in response to the protests, presumably confident that her rural supporters will reaffirm her party's claim to power and her mandate to govern. In Kiev the latest reports have turned ominous and a crackdown by the government seems more likely. Who really represents democracy in either country? Each country's government claims the legitimacy derived from elections, while metropolitan protesters claim the legitimacy of raw numbers. As in Cairo, the idea is to show that millions, or at least hundreds of thousands of people, are The People. Democracy is never that simple -- witness the suspicion of cities that persists in American politics -- but in history democracy has often been reduced to rule by whoever shows up, with the real power belonging arguably to whoever determines when and where people should show. Yanukovich's supporters presumably can't outnumber the opposition in Kiev, nor can Shinawatra's supporters outnumber the opposition in Bangkok, even though both groups may outnumber their opponents nationwide. What does either case prove? No more than that any theory of practical representative democracy must address the threat to electoral legitimacy presented by a hostile metropolis. The easy answer should be to not pit urban against rural, though Ukraine's troubles in particular don't come down to that alone. The Egyptian example itself is no easy answer to the problems of democracy, but it serves, as do its imitators, as a reminder that the meaning of democracy itself remains subject to debate -- and that debate, too, may be decided by whoever shows up.

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