Mass street protests are usually seen as a hallmark of democratic aspirations. And elections are meant to be a culmination of such aspirations, affording people the opportunity to choose their own leaders and system of government. But in country after country these days, the hallmarks of democracy are being dangerously subverted and co-opted by powerful elites. The question is, are we recognizing what is happening under our noses? Three examples unfolding right now are indicators of this trend: Thailand, Ukraine and Egypt.
Thailand has just witnessed its 19th coup in 82 years. Although coup leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-Ocha has promised “genuine democracy,” he has given no timetable for an end to martial law. The U.S. State Department initially refused to call the takeover a coup, insisting that martial law is consistent with Thailand’s constitution. It then changed its tune to issue a strongly worded condemnation.
In Ukraine, voters elected a pro-Western leader after President Viktor Yanukovych fled following mass protests over his refusal to sign an accord with the European Union. Although the incoming president, Petro Poroshenko, has promised democratic development, the U.S. has openly sided with pro-Western forces inside Ukraine and raised the tensions of the conflict to near Cold War era levels, rendering any promises of true democracy ineffectual at best.
In Egypt, an army general is in the process of being “elected” following a period of violent military rule after post-revolution elections yielded a leader from the Muslim Brotherhood. The U.S. quietly condoned the army’s overthrow of the Brotherhood leadership and has made only lukewarm criticisms of violent repression under Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, employing a dangerous wait-and-see approach while Egyptian lives hang in the balance. Once the election is over, Sisi will likely be viewed by the U.S. government as a democratically elected leader.
In Thailand, Ukraine and Egypt, wealthy elites, whether native born or foreign, have used popular movements and elections to ratify decisions in their favor. In an interview on Uprising, filmmaker and investigative journalist Andre Vltchek, who has traveled recently to all three countries in question, explained that in Thailand in particular, Thaksin Shinawatra, the business-tycoon-turned-prime-minister who was driven from power in 2006, “was trying to bring the country to modern capitalism.” He introduced medical care that is much better than the system in the United States, with “heavily subsidized medicines.” Additionally Thailand now has 15 years of basic education free for all citizens, and according to Vltchek, Thaksin gave citizenship to a population of millions in the north who were disenfranchised. Thaksin’s supporters called themselves the Red Shirt Movement, and consisted primarily of rural Thai farmers and left-wing activists.
To be fair, Thaksin’s rule had several serious problems that Vltchek acknowledged as “terrible mistakes,” including a brutal “war on drugs” and a war against a Muslim minority in the south of Thailand. But it was his progressive social programs for which he was “hated by the elites—the monarchy and the military, because in Thailand it is not just money but the gap between the elites and the majority” that matters.
What most of us viewed from the outside as a major people’s revolution occupying government buildings to oust a corrupt leader—the so-called Yellow Shirt movement—consists in fact of forces allied to the Thai royal family and military. The movement has ironically adopted the name People’s Alliance for Democracy. I asked Vltchek whether its supporters were really in favor of democracy. “No, they were not,” he pointedly replied. In fact, “they have nothing to do with democracy”; rather, “they were against democracy,” said Vltchek, who met with many of the Yellow Shirt protest leaders and heard the “rumors that there were ‘very powerful forces’ behind the protests,” which meant “the monarchy and the military.” Vltchek maintained that Thai elites are afraid of true democracy, as the opposition ran in multiple elections after Thaksin was pushed out and lost time and again.
According to Vltchek, the West has played a quiet role in supporting the royalist leaning forces, despite the opposition’s assertions that “Thaksin is very popular in the West and that it is him who is getting support from the West.” But, Vltchek said, opposition forces were “very reliable allies of the West. Don’t forget that Thailand for decades was massacring the left-wing opposition; they were burning communists alive in barrels of petroleum. They liquidated the entire left-wing opposition and gained a reputation as reliable allies [of the West].” In fact, he went on to say, “The majority of the people from the opposition were educated in Eton, Cambridge and Oxford. Thai people don’t speak foreign languages, but when you talk to their leaders they all speak perfect, fluent English.”
Elections in Ukraine have also reeked of co-option of democracy. Ukrainians picked a wealthy candy manufacturer as their new president, but only after their moderate, center-right president, Yanukovych, dared to reject an EU accord that was, according to Vltchek, a “bizarre deal that said basically ‘let us have access to your steel industry and your mining sector and in exchange you will have nothing; your people will not even be able to travel to the European Union, forget about living there or working there.’ ” Obviously, “even this pro-Western government said ‘no way.’ ”
In fact the deposed government of Yanukovych, Vltchek said, was “not at all pro-Russian, or Socialist or Communist.” He cited data showing that the European Union may have spent over $1 billion in supporting the protests against Yanukovych, and that many people who participated in the so-called Euromaidan movement were “clearly paid,” an assertion that is confirmed by news reports like this one.
Vltchek spent many days driving thousands of miles in cities all over Ukraine. In Kharkiv, which is considered Ukraine’s “second capital,” he met people who told him, “We are not going to accept the Western dictatorship rule which is full of fascists anyway and right-wing elements. ... We are not going to accept the anti-Russia propaganda. Russia is our natural friend and ally."
In Egypt, a similar dynamic resulting in the subversion of democracy has played out. Although the movement to depose U.S.-backed dictator Hosni Mubarak was indeed truly grass roots and aspired for real democratic change, in hindsight the revolution seems to have been co-opted first by the Muslim Brotherhood, which used the tools of democracy by winning an election, and then, by the army to depose the Brotherhood and run its own election.
Vltchek, who spent a lot of time in Egypt said, “The West is not protesting when somebody like al-Sisi gets ‘elected’ after the Muslim Brotherhood is basically demonized and arrested. [The military] condemned 600 people [from the Muslim Brotherhood] to death and nobody is screaming murder about it.” Once more powerful elites threw out the results of democratic change when it didn’t suit them and then subverted the hallmarks of democracy to cement their power. Egyptians are so disenchanted that they have not shown up in large enough numbers to vote for the general, prompting an announcement by the army that it had extended voting for an extra day. Once the results are in, they can be rubber-stamped and “democracy” can be declared.
More examples abound, such as the recent uprising in Venezuela, interpreted by most of the mainstream English-language press to be a popular revolt against the socialist government of Nicolas Maduro. But it turns out those protests were aimed at dismantling the socialist state and ideologically (and perhaps directly) supported by the U.S. as this op-ed suggests.
Even India, the world’s largest democracy, which recently held elections, has witnessed the coming to power of a right-wing nationalist government promising fast-paced industrial development with a pro-Western bent. Indian novelist and political commentator Arundhati Roy in an interview in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, lamented, “Now, we have a democratically elected totalitarian government.”
In our new age of digital communication during which mass movements with legitimate democratic aims such as Occupy Wall Street and the original movement to oust Mubarak in Egypt have emerged, we need to remain vigilant about elite interests employing the same tools, such as protests and elections, to further their agenda, and using the language and paraphernalia of democracy. Vltchek warned, “I see this as a very dangerous trend. I’m afraid that the West is making the last push to actually destroy and overrun anything standing in its way that is semi-independent or different.”