Success of violent populist agitations brief


Disruptive and violent populist movements have occurred in various countries at various times in history.In most cases, people have plunged into the movement with good intentions to correct injustices perpetrated by insensitive rulers. Such movements have undoubtedly registered successes, but only partially and briefly, literature on the subject shows.

Often, the chaotic conditions created by such movements have eventually, if not immediately, led to the establishment of dictatorships either of individuals or groups. They have also aroused primordial sentiments of ethnicity and religion. Despite loud claims about their efficacy, violent populist movements have not been a panacea for the ills of society.

Arab Spring

The Arab Spring, which was a wave of pro-democracy protests and uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa in 2010 and 2011, toppled regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, inspiring similar movements in other Arab countries. Yemen saw an uprising in 2011-12, and Libya had a revolt in 2011.

But the Arab Spring proved to be a failure eventually and that too, fairly quickly. In his work Democracy and Governance: The Arab Spring and a Democratic Winter, Robert O’Neill quotes Tarek Masoud, Associate Professor of Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School,to say that outside of Tunisia, “Arab democracy seems further away today than it was at any point in the last 25 years.”Masoud further says that in Libya, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Tunisia, and Yemen, “the aftermath of the Arab Spring ranged from a bloody civil war to a return of the old regime. The season of optimism had proved stunningly unwarranted.”

Popular uprisings are unlikely to sweep away old dictators and usher in democracy, Masoud warns.“The autocrats crackdown (as in Syria or Bahrain) or bide their time (as in Egypt), but they never disappear,” he points out.

Masoud attributes the Arab countries’ backing away from democracy todeep-rooted attachments of the people to their traditional culture,political system, Islam and nationalism. People’s movements like the Arab Spring could end up reawakening feelings for the local culture, traditional norms and religion. And, due to the instability created by an anarchic mass movement,there could be a people’s yearning for order, which, in turn, could lead to the rise to power of the military or the Islamic clergy. These could be supported by the socio-economic elite whose power had been snatched away by the popular movement.

French Revolution

On 14 July 1789, in Paris, mobs stormed the Bastille, marking the beginning of the French Revolution. Jeremy D. Popkin, author of ‘A New World Begins’: The History of the French Revolutionre calls that in 1780, a rampaging mob in London had set fire to buildings, causing several hundred deaths. In 1789, French King Louis XVI, facing an unprecedented financial crisis, hiked taxes. This triggered mass protests. Repression was unleashed. But that only triggered more protests.

Popkin says that the storming of the Bastille was a victory for the idea of representative government. “It set a precedent: For the first time in modern history, ordinary men and women, through their collective action in the streets, ensured the creation of a constitutional system of democratic government.”However, “within a few years, the French Revolution would also show that crowds could be dangerous, even to governments that claimed to represent the will of the people.”

Such protests were the order of the day in France for long. On 20 June 1792, thousands of armed demonstrators invaded the French royal palace, where they held the King prisoner in his own home for hours. “Less than two months later, on 10 August 1792, amid rumours that the King and Queen were supporting the foreign armies that were invading France, armed battalions of the revolution’s citizen militia, the National Guard, stormed the royal palace of the Tuileries. The elected Assembly thus had no choice except to declare the end of the French monarchy. In the ensuing months, that Assembly itself was replaced by the National Convention, the first legislative body to be chosen by universal male suffrage,” Popkin notes.

“However, even an assembly chosen by the people was not immune to the power of the crowd. From 31 May to 2 June 1793, National Guards and other members of the population laid siege to the meeting hall of the National Convention and forced the deputies to expel some of their members, ensuring the triumph of Maximilien Robespierre’s radical political group,” Popkin adds.

The new democratic constitution the deputies subsequently passed proclaimed, “When the Government violates the rights of the people, insurrection is, for the people and every portion of the people, the most sacred of rights and the most indispensable of duties.”

However, Robespierre was overthrown on 27 July 1794. About this, Popkin says: “The revolutionary legislators then chose a more conservative way forward. But when economic distress reached a peak in early 1795, massive demonstrations followed. This time, demonstrators wanted to bring back the monarchy. A young army general, Napoleon Bonaparte, played a crucial role in fighting off the assault. Four years later, he would organise the coup d’état that put him in power and signalled the end of the French experiment with democracy.”

Therefore, the French Revolution ended up creating a military dictator – Napoleon Bonaparte!

Nearer our times, there was a sensational attack on the US Congress (Capitol) on 6 January 2021, to disrupt a joint session of Congress convened to certify the results of the Presidential Election of 2020, which Donald Trump had lost to his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden. The attack was described as an insurrection or attempted coup d’état. The system survived the attack because the attack lacked popular support. Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives, though he was subsequently let off by the Senate.

Lankan Aragalaya

More recently, Sri Lanka saw the storming and occupation of the houses and offices of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the burning of the private residence of the Prime Minister. The uprising, called Aragalaya,forced the President to flee and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to resign, but it failed to overthrow the established system.The State, under the new President Ranil Wickremesinghe, moved to restore law and order. And the masses acquiesced as they generally disapprove of violence.

By P.K. Balachandran