From Democracy to Veto-cracy: Destabilizing World Politics

Egyptian protests

When certain eligible voters, be they representing the majority or the minority, cannot afford to wait for the next election to remove the incumbent leaders or have no trust in plebiscite at all, and betake themselves to mobilize crowds to throttle a policy, to paralyze the administration, or to topple the legitimately elected government boldly, it is not just a threat to this democratic state’s internal stability but may also destabilize the world order if such a “veto-cracy” is becoming a worldwide phenomenon.

The recent emergence of vetocracy in many democratic states is rooted in the long-time irreversible minority position held by certain ethnic, religious, regional or economic interest groups there. When one or more of these groups have realized that it is difficult or almost impossible to access to governmental authority or undo a policy which is not in their favor, they resort to mass rallies or street protests to have their demands heard.

Vetocracy in Egypt and Ukraine – protesting against Mohammed Mursi’s amendments to the constitution and against Viktor Yanukovych’s withdrawal from an EU deal respectively – initially disquieted the regimes and finally led to expulsion of the elected presidents. There were no formal polls to ascertain how representative these protestors were but it did not matter. What matters is that the populace abandons the voting mechanism and attempts to “veto” a policy or the whole government by “protesters’ power” before the next exercise of universal suffrage.

Vetocracy has also been brewing in many other states. Venezuela’s opposition, led by Leopoldo Lopez, organized marches one after another recently to confront Nicolas Maduro who won the April 2013 election with barely 50.7 percent of the electorate, resulting in chaos and violence. Since early 2013, secular camp and liberal-minded Turkish youths have been bidding defiance in different ways to the rule of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan whose party won the 2002, 2007 and the lately 2014 elections. The 2011 protests launched by the Indian traders associations against opening the retail market almost brought down the government should Prime Minister Manmohan Singh not halt the decision to welcome foreign giants like Walmart [1].

Similar anti-government movements also took place in Bulgaria, Bosnia and Brazil.  In East Asia, Thailand is right now in economic turmoil as the half-year standoff between the generally elected Yingluck government and the “red-shirts” opposition, which sees Thaksin’s rural policy unfair to them, remains a deadlock. The students in Taiwan under the name of Sunflower Movement are the latest ones to join this club by occupying the legislative building in order to block a cross-strait trade agreement sealed by the democratically elected President Ma Ying-jeou.

Vetocracy may in the long term buffet the post-WWII peace and order that we have been enjoying for sixty years — chaotic secession.

Ukraine is right now being fragmented. Many other states are also under the threats of secession when certain ethnic minorities or interested groups cannot have their demands satisfied since the conflicts of this nature cannot be resolved by referendum. In Belgium, the divide between the Dutch-speaking and French-speaking communities is a time bomb. Even a simple housing issue for two pandas from China can cause infighting. Zuhal Demir of the Flemish separatist N-VA party accused the prime minister, Di Rupo, of blatant favoritism when the pandas were sent to Pairi Daiza animal park rather than the country’s best known zoo in Antwerp [2]. The current and potential secession movements of Catalonia in Spain [3], Shetland in Scotland, Sardinia in Italy, the secular Turks and the ethnic Kurds in Turkey, the Muslims in Myanmar, the regional interests in Thailand, the indigenous people in Taiwan, the various minorities in India and Pakistan, and even Texas in the United States, are early signs of vetocracy since they are always the losers in a nation-wide voting system. They therefore tend to cast a veto to the state by secession and if necessary may lean on foreign powers to secure their independency.

The major concern to foreign policy is the face-to-face confrontation between the superpowers brought in by vetocracy. In a state being torn between the diffident governing elites and the emulous street protestors, both sides may appeal to certain external supports from different “power camps,” namely, the Christian West, the Orthodox Russia, the Sunni Saudi Arabia, the Shiite Iran, and lately, the atheist China. These vetocratic states thus open up themselves to foreign interventions and then become a bloody arena between two or more blocs, generating more tensions and disorders in international relations. The vetocratic developments in Ukraine and various former Soviet states (West vs Russia), Egypt (Muslim Brotherhood vs West), Turkey (Muslim conservatives vs West), Iran (Shiite vs West), Venezuela (West vs China), Sudan (West vs China), Thailand (West vs China), Taiwan (West and China) and the like have fertilized the soil for clashes among the superpowers and may lay out a terrain for antagonistic multi-polar dynamics.

Professor Kenneth N. Waltz (1924-2013), founder of Neorealism or Structural Realism, argues that a bipolar world is likely to be more stable than a multi-polar international relations [4]. If he is correct that the anarchical world order can be better kept in peace in a duopoly mode, the trend towards a multi-polar bloc politics indicates that the transformation of those unstable democracies towards chaotic vetocracies may eventually bring us a political disaster.


1. Washington Post, India suspends plan to open up retail market to foreign chains, Dec 7, 2011.

2. Reuters, Punch-up over giant pandas divides Belgium, Sep 11, 2013.

3. Foreign Policy in Focus, Conn Hallinan, Continental Drift: Europe’s Breakaways, April 8, 2014.

4. Kenneth N. Waltz (1964), The Stability of a Bipolar World, Daedalus, in Population, Prediction, Conflict, Existentialism, Vol. 93, No.3 (Summer 1964), pp. 881-909, MIT Press.

The opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of FPIF.

Keith K C Hui is a Chinese University of Hong Kong graduate, a Fellow of The Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (UK), and the author of Helmsman Ruler: China’s Pragmatic Version of Plato’s Ideal Political Succession System in The Republic, Singapore: Trafford, 2013.

  • David Zarembka

    You neglect to note that most of these “elections” are manipulated at best and frequently rigged. Confrontation will always be the result of “winner-take-all” elections. The real issue is that these elites who control these countries are ruling for their own enhancement and not for the benefit of the average person or their country.

    • Keith K C Hui

      [1] I do not have very reliable data in hand to prove or disprove your point that these elections had been rigged. Based on my observations, however, I still believe that the latest elections in Thailand, Taiwan, Venezuela, Turkey, India, Belgium, Egypt and Brazil were properly conducted. For example, there was no clear evidence to suggest that Mursi’s victory for presidency was faked. It is unfair to accuse that those who won should have forged something while those who lost must have been honest and innocent.
      [2] I disagree that those elites rule for their own enhancement, not for the average persons. Take Thailand as an example, the Yingluck government’s land reform and rural policies did improve the livelihood of the farmers who make up the majority of the population. What is the logic that the government must act in favor with the bankers in the urban areas? In Venezula, you may say that Chavez’ socialist policies are short-sighted or economically non-sense but I cannot be convinced that he ruled for his enhancement and not for the average persons.
      [3] For unknown reasons, there has been a trend to label those who govern are bad guys and those who protest must be good guys. Many commentators, esp those netizens, do not evaluate carefully what interests are behind the protests and are so simple-minded to say that all those shouting in the streets must be saints. If the elections have been properly run, the losers should play by the rules. Resorting to street violence without justification is to destroy democracy, not to improve it.

  • davidzarembka

    I am involved with grassroots election violence prevention
    and election observing in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and North/South Kivu
    in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. If we add in the surrounding countries
    of eastern Africa – Tanzania, Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, and now South
    Sudan, in the 50 years since independence there has not been on case of
    democratic change of government in eastern Africa – except, that is, for
    Burundi whose democratically elected president, Ndadaye was assassinated by the
    losers a few months after taking office by those whom he defeated. As Mobutu of
    then Zaire once said, “I cannot lose an election that I have organized.”

    We train citizen reporters who are connected by cell phone
    to a call-in center, starting well over a year before an election. We watch the
    unfolding of the election process and don’t just show up a few days before the
    election and watch citizens drop ballots into boxes and announce that the
    election has been “free and fair.” We uncover amazing amounts of malfeasance from
    bribery, voter enrollment padding, intimidation of voters – if you are
    overheard to speak against the favorite candidate or for his opponents, then
    you are visited at night by party members of the favorite candidate — and so
    on and on and on.

    You say, “the losers should play by the rules,” but the
    rules are made by and manipulated by those in power to benefit themselves to
    that it is impossible for them to lose. The ruling party takes advantage of its
    control of the security forces, the electoral commission, government officials
    and vehicles to harass, intimidate, jail, and even assassinate its opponents
    and their supporters. The rewards are great as becoming a successful politician
    in this region is the route to fabulous wealth which is then deposited off-shore
    outside Africa.

    You make an assumption that I think the losers are angels.
    This is not the case. In this region one can only win by playing dirty games.
    The losers, if they could win, would need to do the same things that the
    winners are currently doing because that is the only way they could win. In the
    2013 Kenyan election there were some “clean” candidates and they each received
    less than 1% of the vote.

    This is the reality from where I sit.

    • Keith K C Hui

      I must admit that I know very little about the elections in the African states you mentioned. Thanks a lot for reporting the reality here and by your writings published earlier, and drawing public attention to the situations there. All these are indispensible info for understanding the dynamics of democracy working in different countries and regions.

      [1] I agree with you that if the rules are unfair before hand, the losers are entitled to voice out their demands by other means and if I could afford to be there, I would join them without hesitation.

      [2] However, what I am talking right now are those reasonably established democratic states. To different extents, the electoral institutions in those countries mentioned in my article (Ukraine, Egypt, Thailand, Taiwan, Venezuela …) have already been in place to work with freedom of press, open access to independent judiciary etc. That is why my full sentence is this: “If the elections have been properly run, the losers should play by the rules.”

      [3] We human make mistakes and that is why voters as a whole can also make mistakes — a bad choice of the candidates to be given the mandate. But for democracy to grow healthily, we need to be patient for the next round to vote him/her down, not by chaotic rallies, unless the elected leaders are about to do something like war crimes e.g.Hitler. Not all nations can be so lucky like Americans who had George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other high caliber and virtuous leaders one after one. In short, for democracy to be properly institutionalized, it takes generations for the voters to learn. If they rush, it is just a road to hell paved with good intention.