Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Modes of Popular Mobilizations against Authoritarian Rulers: A Comparison of 1989, the Color Revolutions, and the Mena Uprisings

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Modes of Popular Mobilizations against Authoritarian Rulers: A Comparison of 1989, the Color Revolutions, and the Mena Uprisings

Article excerpt

Waves of Contentious Politics

Over the last thirty years, there have been three cross-national waves of popular mobilizations against authoritarian rulers. The first was in 1989 (strictly speaking, 1987-1991), when citizens throughout the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe demanded that their communist rulers leave power (Stokes, 1993; Brown, 1991; Bunce, 1999). What followed was either a transition to democracy or a revised version of authoritarian rule. The second was the color revolutions in postcommunist Europe and Eurasia from 1998 to 2008 (Bunce and Wolchik, 2011). In this wave, citizens in collaboration with civil society groups and opposition parties in nine competitive authoritarian regimes in the region--Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Croatia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Serbia, Slovakia, and Ukraine--carried out unprecedented and extraordinarily ambitious electoral challenges to authoritarian incumbents or their anointed successors. Not all of these challenges brought the opposition to power--either because the incumbent or his designated successor won handily or because the regime's candidate refused to hold a new election or admit defeat, even in the face of credible claims of electoral fraud and significant post-election protests. A version of the scenario of electoral fraud and post-election protest also appeared in Russia in connection with the December 2011 parliamentary elections and the March 2012 presidential election. The final wave occurred with the so-called Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) (Lynch, 2012; Patel, Bunce and Wolchik, 2011; Goldstone, 2012). Once again, large-scale demonstrations broke out in one country (Tunisia) and then spread to a series of neighboring countries. As with the two earlier waves, moreover, these actions were driven by a common goal: the removal of authoritarian incumbents from power.

Studies of these waves, whether concentrating on one of them or, less commonly, taking a more comparative perspective, have addressed a number of puzzles associated with these popular challenges to authoritarian rulers. For example, why were scholars so surprised by each of these uprisings? Was this failure of prediction a function of why and how protests erupt in authoritarian regimes and the impossibility of predicting such events, or did it reflect a misreading of authoritarian regimes (Bunce, 2013)? What explains the initial outbreak of protest in each of these regions; why did it succeed (and sometimes fail) in bringing down authoritarian leaders; and why and how did the precedents set by the "early riser" (Beissinger, 2002) move--especially so rapidly--to many other countries in the region? What was the role in these waves of the two most commonly recognized drivers of diffusion dynamics: demonstration effects and transnational networks (Bunce, 2012; Wolchik, 2012)? Finally, what explains the uneven reach of these waves with respect to their geographical span and their success in removing authoritarian leaders from office (see Goldstone, 2012; Bunce and Wolchik, 2011; Patel, Bunce and Wolchik, 2011; Patel, 2012)?

The purpose of this article is to address a new question that emerges once we combine these three waves and focus not on whether, but rather how, societal actors have mounted significant challenges to authoritarian rulers. In particular, what explains the variation in the strategies opponents of authoritarian regimes have used to demand that their rulers leave office? While it is true, as Acemoglu and Robinson (2006) have persuasively argued, that popular upheavals are the Achilles heel of authoritarian regimes, it is also the case that such upheavals have, in practice, taken very different forms. Thus, if we focus on our three waves as well as developments in Russia in 2011-2012, we find, first, that the events of 1989 exhibited two approaches to pressuring authoritarian leaders to leave office: the large-scale protests that Acemoglu and Robinson emphasize in their rational choice account and roundtables between oppositions and governing communist parties (contrasting modes that also appear in the transitions from authoritarian to democratic rule in Latin America and Southern Europe--see, for instance, Schmitter and Karl, 1991). …

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