In the last five years, democratically elected governments in countries as diverse as Guatemala, Bulgaria, Venezuela, Ukraine, Thailand, Macedonia, South Africa, Spain, Iceland, Hungary and presently governments in Moldova, Brazil and Poland were all challenged and some of them forced to step down by mass-based popular uprisings. If it had not been for the strategic weakness of the Occupy movement, the United States might have also seen toppling of its own democratically elected leaders closely tied to business elites. This might still happen. If Donald Trump wins the presidential election and attempts to implement some of his most outrageous campaign promises popular uprising may be in the making sooner than we think.
When is people rising against their own government legitimate?
A number of Western philosophical treaties, historical practice and agreements, including declarations of people's self-determination rights stressed the moral and legal permissibility, and even necessity, to rise up against abusive regimes.
In 1215, the Magna Carta Libertatum agreed by King John and rebelling barons, stipulated that in the event of offense "in any respect against any man" and transgression of "any of the articles of the peace or of this security" the people had the right to "distrain upon and assail [the King] in every way possible (...)" Born 10 years after Magna Carta, Thomas Aquinas agreed in his treatise that if "the authority command an act of sin contrary to virtue" people "not only are not obliged to obey but (...) are also obliged not to obey(...) ungodly tyrants" that must be overthrown with the use of "just" violence, if necessary.
Four centuries later, John Locke argued that a social contract between a ruler and ruled can be rescinded by the latter if the government takes away property and enslaves people. In such circumstances, "the People have a right to remove it by force."
In the 1776 US Declaration of Independence, its drafters wrote that if the government "becomes destructive of (...) unalienable Rights (...) Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness (...) it is the Right of the People (...) it is their duty (...) to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government."
The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen from 1789 said that people had "natural and imprescriptible rights" such as the right to "resistance to oppression." Four years later, the declaration to the 1793 French Constitution stated that "[armed] insurrection is (...) the most sacred of rights and the most indispensable of duties... [when] the government violates the rights of the people."
Even if the right to armed rebellion against violent regimes is an established proposition and often the practice (consider recent examples of Libya or Syria), the question remains whether popular uprisings against state authorities that are largely democratic in nature and thus more legitimate and generally less repressive toward their own population than their authoritarian counterparts, are permissible.
In such circumstances, organized societal violence can be viewed and, rightly so, as a disproportionate, if not misguided, response to the ills of the democratic system or democratically elected leaders. There might also be recognition that societal violence will neither lead to the betterment of the democratic society nor can it be done with little risks or low costs for the participants and their social surrounding, particularly against the state which has a monopoly on violence and skills in using it.
There are at least 10 legitimizing attributes of the people's uprising against democratically elected governments that, collectively, can make such rebellion admissible and defensible in the eyes of the general public as well as outsiders:
1. Nonviolent nature
2. Collective & diverse
3. Genuinely grassroots & non-ideological
4. Not a first resort
6. Goal strategic
7. Moderate ends
8. Cause nontrivial
9. Sway opponent's allies
10. Win support of external parties
The popular uprisings in democratic countries in the last five years largely took the form of peaceful actions. People resorted to the use of nonviolent methods such as demonstrations, marches, strikes, boycotts, sit-ins, occupations, and civil disobedience to push for policy demands, including government change. Remaining nonviolent provides a level of legitimacy to people's mobilization and makes any state violence more likely to backfire, increasing sympathy for protesters and further delegitimizing the authorities already weakened by mass protests.
One way to maintain or show nonviolent discipline is in the nature of tactics chosen by the protesters that leave little, if any, room for activist violence to occur. For example, in 2015, Spanish activists organized the first ever hologram demonstration in front of the government building against laws that placed restrictions on protest gatherings outside the government offices. This was not only an innovative tactic used to circumvent the law, but its very nature could not show more clearly a nonviolent character of the resistance.
Remaining peaceful helps uprisings to grow as more people, regardless of age, gender or social background, are willing to join nonviolent actions. Furthermore, the more people join a nonviolent rebellion the more legitimacy it gains in the eyes of the observers and the less risky and more attractive it becomes for others to join. The number of participants is always positively correlated with the ultimate success of nonviolent campaigns. In fact, historically, nonviolent uprisings that mobilized at least 3.5% of the population or more never failed.
The collective nature of uprising is also highlighted by the diversity of participants that include rich and poor, young and old, men, women and children, students, intellectuals, workers, farmers, doctors, lawyers, and other professional groups. The nonviolent uprisings with a cross-sectional representation make a powerful case for why their demands are legitimate and must be heard by the democratically elected leaders.
In Bulgaria, the cross-sectionality of the protests against corruption at the beginning of 2013 saw the participation of the general public, including students, celebrities, civil society organizations, middle and lower classes. This diversity significantly increased the leverage of the protestors and they were able to force the resignation of the prime minster and his government.
Recognizing that labelling members of grassroots uprising as foreign stooges - a rhetoric commonly used by the authoritarian regimes - is far-fetched and unlikely to convince many that have access to relatively uncensored news and information, democratic governments instead tend to resort to accusations that nonviolent protesters are part of the opposition political parties, and thus tainted by ideology and politicized. They are yet another group of aspiring politicians. This is the way to undermine authenticity of popular mobilization, question its legitimacy and sow doubts in how genuinely the movement represents ordinary people and their grievances.
It is the task of the popular uprising to reaffirm to a general public and would-be allies its truly grassroots character. It can do this by showing that ordinary people are spearheading its actions and that the movement does not strive for formal power even if it aims to change it. For example, the Committee in Defense of Democracy that last December launched demonstrations against the authoritarian-leaning government in Poland emphasizes time and again that it is not not associated with any existing political party, does not aim to become one, "have no plans to run at elections."
Popular uprisings that rely on extrainstitutional or extraparliamentary nonviolent methods in the form of demonstrations, noncooperation, occupations, sit-ins and parallel or alternative forms of organizing in order to achieve their objective should rarely, if ever, be used as a first resort. The legitimacy of a popular outburst against democratic government comes from the fact that other institutional means of influencing political leaders have been tried, are not available or are not effective at a particular moment in time: e.g. elections, courts and lawsuits, or pressure from the interest groups or media. The population generally recognizes that there is little leeway and leverage in bringing about a desirable change other than through extrainstitutional, even if illegal, nonviolent methods.
It is also important that the resort to mass-based, extrainstitutional actions is an exception rather than the rule in doing politics in the country. Even if actions remain nonviolent they can be highly disruptive for the society, economy and functioning of the government as a whole. If abused and practiced purely as a substitute to institutional politics popular uprisings can paralyze political scene for months and years as it happened in Thailand that, in turn, can open the door for nondemocratic elements such as the military to take over.
The goal of a nonviolent uprising should be strategic in a sense that it is specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound (SMART). This helps mobilize a greater number of people and sustain their involvement when they feel they own the struggle, have a clear objective in sight, sense an urgency to attain it, see the progress that exhilarates them and keep people focused on the ultimate prize. SMART insures that the struggle indeed gains a popular following and thus widespread legitimacy.
In Guatemala, in spring 2015, the protests had the clear objective of removing immediately from power specific people involved in the massive corruption scandal, and bringing them to court. Specific successes were achieved on the road to the ultimate victory when the vice-president followed by government ministers resigned. This gave the popular uprising even more confidence and determination. The momentum was sustained and eventually forced the president out of power few months later.
The goal of a popular struggle in a democratic setting is to restore what common sense would consider normalcy: care for public good reflected in honest, accountable and constitution-bound governance. This is not about the overthrow of a democratic system, though it can involve forcing resignation of democratically elected leaders. In that sense, moderation is an important part of the struggle ends. To some extent, sensible ends reflect a self-restraint nature of nonviolent means. This naturally does not mean that the nonviolent uprising cannot be about a significant disruption to push for a change in the status quo. As Martin Luther King noted the objective of a popular nonviolent struggle is to create a "situation so crisis packed" that it will force government to offer real concessions.
The reason for a popular uprising cannot be trivial or transient. It must be serious enough to cause a grave concern that democracy itself or citizens' general welfare is at stake and that standard mechanisms of control and accountability can no longer prevent or contain the damage. Extraordinary circumstances legitimize extrainstitutional measures. Most of the times, people rose up because the seriousness of violations by the ruling elite demonstrated the urgency of counter-action that a traditional parliamentary opposition could not deliver and the existing institutional mechanisms of control have been undermined or proven inadequate. Mega corruptions in Moldova, Bulgaria or Guatemala could hardly be dealt with by the same political establishment that caused it. A bottom-up pressure was required to challenge the elites and drive home the message that such practices would no longer be tolerated by the population.
With the growing discontent among the populous driven by grievances shared by many, there are likely splits emerging within the establishment, including regime's political, economic, bureaucratic or religious allies. These divisions and sometimes open defections from the opponent's groups bestow further legitimacy on the popular uprising, increasing its chances of success by more than half. In various recent popular struggles- be it in Guatemala, Moldova, Ukraine or Bulgaria, there occurred significant and eventually catastrophic for the regime shifts in the loyalty among their business, political, bureaucratic allies and even security establishment that moved them away from their government masters to either become neutral or support the movement's demands. The probability that the U.S. military, which enjoys the highest societal trust among public institutions in the country could refuse to follow President Trump's orders is highly likely if Trump followed on some of his campaign promises like torture of terrorists or killing their families in retaliation. Such unheard disobedience in the US governance and on a large scale could, in turn, irreparably undermine and paralyze Trump's presidency.
Winning external support, particularly from the established, recognized and impartial international institutions that guard democratic practices and transparent governance can confer an important legitimacy in the eyes of the domestic and international audience on the grassroots campaign, the people behind it and their grievance and cause. The opinion of the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe that the right wing government in Poland violated independence of the Constitutional Tribunal validated the popular struggle against growing authoritarianism in the country. In Guatemala, the UN-established International Commission against Impunity (CICIG) uncovered massive fraud in the highest echelons of the Guatemalan government. The authority of the CICIG provided an important legitimacy cover for the powerful civic uprising, including its demands to ouster and charge the corrupt politicians.
As the last 5 years show, popular uprisings against democratically elected officials are not only common but they have become a powerful force to instigate major political changes that traditionally were brought about through parliamentary processes or courts or democratic elections. The power of popular uprisings comes from legitimizing attributes. The presence or absence of these attributes tells activists, their opponents, the general public and external actors about the legitimacy of the uprising and its claims, support among ordinary people, its power and potentials for further growth and even the likelihood of success. Watch out for these attributes if you care to understand the dynamics of contemporary peoples-led conflicts in democracies.