It has been an extraordinary year for people power. Mass protests have overturned governments round the world, checked blatant abuses of power and offered hope that the 21st century may prove to be an era of genuine democracy. In each case, however, the government that was turned out had already ridden to power on a wave of popular protest. A warning has been sounded: Populists beware.
The first inklings of this new restlessness were visible in Peru, where the people took to the streets this spring to protest President Alberto Fujimori’s attempts to steal a third term in office. While the instrument of his downfall may have been the videotape of his accomplice, shadowy intelligence chief Vladimiro Montesinos, paying off an opposition lawmaker, it was mass discontent with the regime that forced the president’s hand and obliged him to call new elections.
The most spectacular exhibition of the strength of the people was visible in Yugoslavia, where demonstrations against President Slobodan Milosevic forced his resignation after 10 years of corruption and misrule. The wily Mr. Milosevic gambled that the opposition would prove once again to be its own worst enemy; he bet wrong and the people vented a decade of frustrations and rage when he tried to ignore the popular will by attempting to rig a vote.
Finally, last week, the people of Cote d’Ivoire threw out their military government after it too tried to steal an election. Gen. Robert Guei, who took power during a coup last December, had tilted the playing field by disqualifying most of the popular politicians from the opposition. Yet even with that advantage, he was forced to seize control of the vote count and declared himself the winner when the public voted for Mr. Laurent Gbagbo, head of the Ivorian Popular Front. Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets and Gen. Guei was forced to flee, leaving Mr. Gbagbo to form a coalition government.
Ironically, in each case, the man forced from office had played the populist card while in power. Mr. Fujimori offered himself as an alternative to the old order in Peru, which had proven incapable of modernizing the nation. Shortly into his first term, he launched an “auto-coup” against the constitution so as to be able to rule without challenge. His success and his popularity propelled him to a second term. Mr. Milosevic had unsheathed Serb nationalism during his disastrous decade in power. His unrestrained enthusiasm for a Greater Serb state resulted in the dismemberment of his country, a war against NATO and the destruction of Yugoslavia’s economy. Mr. Guei rode the shoulders of the citizens when he came to power last year. Even though he launched the first coup in Cote d’Ivoire’s history, the government he toppled was generally considered corrupt and divisive.
Despite their initial successes, none of these men truly learned from their experience. Popular discontent opens the door to power, but staying there is another matter. Governments must deliver, and in each of these three cases they failed.
It is a lesson that other leaders should study as well. President Joseph Estrada of the Philippines is facing another resurgence of the people-power movement that swept former dictator Ferdinand Marcos from office. Mr. Estrada is accused of accepting payoffs, a charge he denies. His party has a majority in the country’s legislature, so impeaching him is almost impossible. But the real threat to his rule is extraparliamentary: an outpouring of people into the streets, led by the Catholic Church and former President Corazon Aquino. The charges against Mr. Estrada are a pretext: The real indictment is his government’s failure to make a tangible improvement in the lives of the vast majority of the Philippine people.
Equally concerned about recent events — those in Yugoslavia, in particular — is the government in Beijing. While it has opened the door to economic reforms, the Chinese leadership has been insistent that similar movement on the political front is unthinkable. The government is doing its best to crush any potential threat to its authority; the continuing crackdown on the Falun Gong sect is proof of how determined the government is — and how difficult that task will be.
It is easy to conclude that the resort to extraparliamentary action sows the seeds of its eventual comeuppance, but that is not necessarily so. The failure of these self-proclaimed saviors to live up to their promise of genuine change is what condemned them. Seizing power in the name of the people is not enough; delivering the fruits of that victory to them and trusting them to safeguard the nation’s prosperity is.
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