WASHINGTON – We live in an era in which globalization is said to be benefiting elites in countries around the world while leaving behind the masses who lack the education or skills to compete. And yet, 2013 will be remembered as the year in which the streets of many a capital were filled with angry and dispossessed elites.
The crowds who called for revolution in Cairo, Istanbul, Bangkok and Kiev last year were not the impoverished losers of globalization. They were, for the most part, the economic winners: middle-class, educated, secular, English-speaking. They’ve had the backing of big businessmen who have been enriched by trade, and, as often as not, the sympathy of the Obama administration and other Western governments.
So why are they rebelling?
Because globalization is not merely an economic story. It is accompanied by the spread of freer and more inclusive elections to dozens of countries where they were previously banned or rigged. That has enabled the rise of populists who cater to globalization’s losers and who promise to crush the old establishment and even out the rewards. In country after country, they’ve succeeded in monopolizing the political system. Hence, the elite revolt.
Hugo Chavez, elected in Venezuela in 1998, was a pioneer of this trend. He was followed not just by other Latin American caudillos, but also by Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand, Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine and Mohammed Morsi in Egypt, among others.
Yes, these rulers have many differences. But they have some big things in common: Their support comes disproportionately from poorer, less-educated and more rural voters, while their opponents are concentrated in cities, especially capitals. The populists are also good at winning elections, but bad at governing — except when it comes to delivering spoils to their followers.
Most troubling, democracy’s winners all too often turn out to have little respect for democratic institutions. Like Chavez, they are prone to rewriting the constitutions they inherit to concentrate their power. In the name of ousting the old order, they purge courts and the media and repopulate them with their own followers.
They then subject peaceful opponents to political prosecutions, fill the airwaves with their propaganda and shut down civil society groups, especially those with connections to the West.
They sometimes resort to violence, as well, though usually not by using security forces. Instead, Chavez, Thaksin and Morsi organized their own irregular gangs of thugs and sent them out to attack their critics.
Faced with all this, it’s not surprising that elites have risen up. The mass marches of the middle classes began in Caracas in 2002; last month they were out in force in Bangkok and Kiev. Last year, they were in Istanbul’s Taksim square. Their grievances are legitimate. Their rulers are depriving them of freedoms and, in most cases, wrecking the economy.
Here’s the problem, though: Most of the elite rebels are no more committed to democracy than their opponents. In Cairo, the leaders of secular political parties conspired with the military to oust Morsi; since the July 3 coup, most have cheered Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi as he has consolidated a neo-Nasserist regime. Bangkok’s “yellow shirts,” having supported previous coups only to lose the subsequent elections, are now demanding that the democratically elected government headed by Thaksin’s sister be replaced by an appointed council. In Kiev, the demonstrators who turned out to protest Yanukovych’s decision to ditch an association agreement with the European Union have demanded that he resign even though the presidential term he won in a free election does not end until 2015.
These tactics all lead to dead ends. Though Egypt is holding thousands of political prisoners and has received billions in bailout money from the Persian Gulf, its new military regime lacks the means to stabilize the country. Morsi’s poor and rural supporters will resist the painful economic reforms the country needs, and some of them may join a violent insurgency.
Thailand’s rebels are risking a split between the poorer north and more prosperous south. If Yanukovych were ousted unconstitutionally, Ukraine could splinter between west and east.
The restless elites in all these countries could learn something from their counterparts in Chavez’s Venezuela. The opposition there at first marched, too, and supported an abortive military coup. They tried a national strike; they tried boycotting elections. All were failures that merely helped Chavez consolidate power.
At last, a new generation of younger leaders rose up, with a different strategy: Embrace democracy. They have sworn off violence and have promised to retain some of the regime’s anti-poverty programs.
So far, their results are mixed. Thanks to gerrymandering and control of the media, the regime is still winning elections, including a critical vote held to choose Chavez’s successor. But in Venezuela, at least, it’s possible to foresee a future where democracy and globalization coexist.
Jackson Diehl is deputy editorial page editor for The Washington Post and writes on foreign affairs.