Authoritarians are developing new tactics and strategies to preempt and repress their citizens’ democratic aspirations, a new book suggests. But pro-democracy activists are also adapting, notes David Lowe, and they may have history on their side.
–An opposition leader in Malaysia is charged with violating the country’s sodomy laws.
–A Russian NGO that publicizes official corruption is subjected to a tax audit that results in crushing financial penalties.
–A Venezuelan government agency denies a broadcast license to a television network whose news stories criticize the country’s president.
According to journalist William J. Dobson, “today the struggle between democracy and dictatorship is rarely, almost never, a conflict between or among nations; it is a contest between people.” And while the few remaining Castros and Assads cling to police state tactics to control their populations (with mixed results), dictators who want to avoid colored revolutions are increasingly taking a different route, turning to more sophisticated methods of keeping their political opposition in check.
The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy (Doubleday, 2012) highlights five regimes that have strived in recent years to maintain a veneer of legitimacy through the use of pseudo-legal measures to keep increasingly active democracy movements from bringing them down: China, Egypt, Malaysia, Russia, and Venezuela. While paying close attention to these regimes and their new forms of repression, he gives equal time to their foes, advocates of freedom engaged in a struggle not only to fend off the authorities but also to mobilize fellow citizens by penetrating the twin obstacles of apathy and fear of the unknown these regimes rely heavily upon for their survival.
That the latter’s efforts have resulted in a number of notable successes over the past decade is unquestionable. Yet, as Dobson points out, while the colored revolutions of the early to mid-2000’s represented a high water mark for small-d democrats, they were followed by a five-year drop in political freedom, the longest continuous decline in political rights and civil liberties recorded by Freedom House since it began its reporting on these trends in the early 1970s. This he attributes to the adaptability of modern authoritarians who understand that using the law to restrict the activities of non-governmental organizations, allowing some small media outlets to operate, holding regular elections that have the appearance (though not the reality) of fairness, and speaking the language of democracy can produce favorable results.
One ruler who has made effective use of all of these methods is the Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. In 1992, Chavez organized an unsuccessful coup attempt by an underground cell of fellow military officers. Following two years in prison, he emerged with a populist message directed against an unpopular and corrupt regime that, in 1999, led him to the presidency. Gaining the confidence of the country’s substantial segment of the population living in poverty, Chavez built a solid base of support that provided the political foundation for a rapid and highly methodical consolidation of power that has enabled him to control every branch of government, the armed forces, the central bank, the state-owned oil company, and much of the media that he exploits to promote his message denouncing enemies–both foreign and domestic–as traitors and lackeys of the United States.
Perhaps above all, Chavez gained control of the once-independent National Electoral Council. As Dobson points out, Chavez relies heavily upon elections to maintain his hold on power, using them to justify his elimination of all checks and balances and enabling him “to create a permanent campaign environment.” Chavez was able to turn a recall referendum forced by his opponents in 2004 to his advantage by requesting the electoral council to turn over the list of the three million petitioners to his campaign manager, which he in turn made public on the internet. The result was devastating to many who signed the recall petition, ranging from the denial of medical care to the firing from jobs at state-run agencies.
Today the Venezuelan people suffer on many fronts: their country’s murder rate is one of the highest in the world, its perpetrators rarely prosecuted; its oil rich economy is in shambles with an inflation rate soaring, food shortages growing, and foreign investment disappearing; and much of its popular media that could be relied upon to report these developments (unlike the state-controlled media), have been shut down. The regime’s opposition, which came together earlier this year to nominate a viable candidate for the Presidential election this fall, is gaining confidence in its ability to capitalize on Chavez’ slipping support. Certainly the news of his illness has created uncertainty about his own future. Nonetheless, his staying power remains impressive, as he continues to play the anti-American card and to use his oil revenue to buy support.
One regime whose lengthy tenure was brought to an abrupt end during the period of Dobson’s research was the Egypt of Hosni Mubarak, who at the time of his downfall had served as president longer than his three predecessors combined. Dobson elicits the candid observation of his ruling party’s media spokesman that well before the end, Mubarak was well aware of the need to adapt his rule to the fact that the digital information age was producing a more informed citizenry. His authoritarian rule had been maintained largely through the manipulation of widespread fear of the likely Islamist alternative.
A small opening was provided in 2005, when Mubarak decided to hold an election with limited opposition. This had the effect of whetting the appetite of a segment of the population for true democracy, later enhanced by the suspicion that he was grooming his son for a dynastic succession. By brazenly stealing the following election five years later, the regime lost any semblance of legitimacy, as the Tahrir protests only months later would make clear.
Should the Egyptian example, in which a regime thought by many “experts” to be invincible shortly before its downfall, offer hope to opponents of tyrants in other parts of the world? Much will depend upon the ability of those opponents to hone their own skills at mass mobilization and outreach to fellow citizens justifiably wary of what will follow in the wake of an upheaval.
Dobson provides a number of examples of effective campaigns to challenge authoritarian regimes, often at the risk of personal and family security:
–in Russia, an environmentalist wages a one-woman campaign to preserve a pristine forest against regime-backed developers who want to bulldoze parts of it to build a highway;
–in China, the number of “mass incidents,” a category encompassing strikes, demonstrations, marches, and sit-ins rises over 200 fold between 1993 and 2010, and in the following year protestors chase police and local officials from a town in the southern part of the country;
–in Venezuela, a student movement leading the opposition to Chavez has higher approval ratings than any other grouping in the country, including the Catholic Church.
Growing along with these protests is the international solidarity and networking led by veterans of the colored revolutions of the past decade. But as the Serb strategist Serge Popovic acknowledges when discussing the 2011 uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, whatever benefits may be derived from listening to the experiences of others, in the end no revolution can succeed that is not entirely homegrown.
While those seeking free societies are able to learn from the experiences of others, so too are the regimes they seek to challenge. There is no better example than the People’s Republic of China, which has learned the lessons of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the 1989 Tiananmen uprising. Dobson describes the latter as “a near-death experience that would remake the social contract between China’s rulers and its people.” Whether the regime’s formula of economic liberalization, selective reforms, and carefully planned succession combined with ruthless repression of political dissent and ethnic minorities will succeed indefinitely remains to be seen. Much may depend upon continued economic growth, which has shown recent signs of slowing down.
In the end, dictators everywhere can fashion the cleverest strategies for survival, but as long as they continue to fear their own people, their learning curve will remain steep and their grip on power precarious.