The people have spoken. They have elected a government. No, wait, I hear the angry shouts of a demonstration in the streets. “We are the people,” they are crying. The crowd is getting larger and larger. They are pressing against the gates of parliament and the presidential palace. And now the government has fallen. The people have spoken.
I don’t blame you for being just a little confused about the different claimants to the mantle of “the people” in the ongoing conflicts in Ukraine, Venezuela, and Egypt. In all three cases, people went to the polls and elected governments, and then the people went out onto the streets to reject those very same governments. Was it the same people, hopeful at one moment and then disappointed some months later? Or were rival groups that failed in the elections simply continuing to dispute who represented the majority? Or had a war of all against all broken out in which the group that shouted the loudest and deployed its power most effectively could prove at the end of a very long day that it was the supreme voice of “the people”?
The process by which people become “the People” frankly mystifies political scientists. “How a people accomplishes this mysterious transformation,” wrote the recently departed political scientist Robert Dahl, is usually “treated as a purely hypothetical event that has already occurred in pre-history or in a state of nature.” Historian Jason Frank agrees: “Determining who constitute the people is an inescapable yet democratically unanswerable dilemma; it is not a question that people can procedurally decide because the very question subverts the premises of its resolution.” There is, in effect, no instruction manual on how to construct “the People” or to coax democracy out of the primordial soup of non-democracy.
The preamble to the constitution of the United States tried to conjure the “People” into existence through declaration. It established that the people of the new country were the ultimate guarantors of sovereignty — not God, not a king, not a military, not even the separate states that were members of the union. “We the People,” the preamble states, “in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence,promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
But of course the “People” at that time were not even the majority of the people living in the new United States. It was a country of slaves, indentured servants, Native Americans, and women who were not allowed to vote. Moreover, property qualifications for voting and holding office reduced even the number of white men who could participate in the new polis. And this category of the excluded doesn’t even cover all the people who simply opposed the revolution or those, like Daniel Shays, who rebelled because they felt that the revolution hadn’t lived up to its promise of transformation. As Howard Zinn writes, “it seems that the rebellion against British rule allowed a certain group of the colonial elite to replace those loyal to England, give some benefits to small landholders, and leave poor white working people and tenant farmers in very much their old situation.”
Yet, in a process less mysterious than the initial creation of “the People,” the U.S. Constitution has been transformed through amendment and interpretation to expand the very definition of the people to which it was initially dedicated. Slavery was abolished, property requirements removed (at least formally), the franchise extended to women, and so on. Democracy, it turns out, is not a declaration. It is an unfolding process.
How then do we evaluate the situation in Ukraine, where one set of people ousted a corrupt president (in Kiev), another set of people removed a regional prime minister in preparation for a referendum on secession (Crimea), and a third set of people have attempted to seize public buildings in a counter-revolution (eastern Ukraine). From the point of view of formal democracy, the ousted president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, has the strongest claim to legitimacy, however corrupt he might have been. He was elected to office by a plurality of voters (he received 35 percent in the first round of elections in 2010 and 48.95 in the second round, with Yulia Tymoshenko coming in second place both times). Also from the viewpoint of procedural democracy, the new Crimean government’s decision to hold a referendum on March 16 seems quite fair: let all the Crimeans decide their fate and not just a narrow elite (or, worse, outside forces). But a focus on mere procedure obscures some deeper truths.
Yanukovych and the Russian government maintain that what happened in late February in Kiev was a coup d’état. But what happened on February 21 was not a military putsch or even simply a wave of protestors suddenly taking over the levers of power. The action was really taking place in parliament. Both opposition and ruling party members attempted to persuade Yanukovych to resign. He initially agreed to do so, but then changed his mind. At that point, his own party abandoned him and called for a vote to take place. Parliament then voted to remove Yanukovych from office by a margin of 328 to 0. There are 449 seats in the parliament, so there were some absences and abstentions, but the majority position was clear, and it included many deputies from Yanukovych’s own party.
But here’s the tricky part. According to the Ukrainian constitution, a majority is not enough. Article 11 maintains that a vote on impeachment must pass by two-thirds of the members, and the impeachment itself requires a vote by three-quarters of the members. In this case, the 328 votes were about 10 votes short of three-quarters. Yanukovych and the Russian government have made much of this discrepancy. But if we look at all the available evidence, from the street to the elite, a supermajority supported Yanukovych’s ouster, including his own party. Ukrainian democracy is clearly a work in progress, and the upcoming presidential elections in May will provide formal democratic legitimacy to what was clearly a popular move. But beware: Ukrainians have had two restarts with the Orange Revolution of 2004-5 and Yanukovych’s election in 2010, and both leaderships failed to secure a national consensus. The fate of the country hangs on this third attempt.
The situation in Crimea is similarly complicated. A semi-autonomous region of Ukraine, the Crimean peninsula has its own parliament and prime minister. When gunmen entered the parliament on February 27, the delegates hastily elected a new prime minister and eventually voted 78-0 to join Russia. This Sunday, Crimeans will have a chance to support or reject what the regional parliament has already decided. Technically, both the vote and the referendum are unconstitutional, since the Ukrainian constitution’s Article 73 maintains that any changes to the country’s territory must be decided by the entire country. The armed occupation of parliament and the lack of transparency of the subsequent votes also reduce the legitimacy of these proceedings. What happened in Crimea has more of the hallmarks of a coup than what took place in Kiev.
But democracy is not just about majority rule. It’s about minority rights. Madison’s concerns about the “tyranny of the majority” — the rule of the rabble — translated into specific U.S. political structures (such as equal representation for small and big states in the Senate). So, perhaps the best way to judge the contents of democracy in Ukraine is to look at how Kiev handles the rights of the Russian minority and Crimea treats the rights of the Ukrainian and Tatar minorities. Despite what Moscow says, there have been no documented assaults on the Russian minority in Ukraine. And yes, Russian speakers had a legitimate beef about the repeal of a language law that protected their status, but Interim President Oleksandr Turchynov subsequently vetoed the repeal. In Crimea, the principal minorities seem to have been effectively shut out of decision-making, and the referendum is taking place in an atmosphere of intimidation. So, again, according to this measure, the changes have been more democratic in Kiev than in Crimea.
It’s instructive to compare the situation in Ukraine with what has been going on in Egypt. Approximately three years ago, after enormous popular protests throughout the country, Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak stepped down and handed power over to the military. The country’s first free elections took place in 2011-12, with the parties connected to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist movement winning a combined 65 percent of the votes. In the subsequent presidential elections, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi squeaked by with 51 percent of the vote. The People had spoken: first to reject Mubarak and then to support the Muslim Brotherhood.
On the first-year anniversary of Morsi’s election, however, another round of protests against his presidency began and grew even larger than the initial Tahrir Square demonstrations that ousted Mubarak. Protestors were upset at Morsi’s efforts to increase his own presidential powers and those of the Muslim Brotherhood. Having sacrificed so much for greater democracy, Egyptian protestors were not interested in watching the return of an autocrat. Instead, what they got on July 3, 2013, was a military coup. The new military government cracked down on pro-Morsi sympathizers — killing more than a thousand and imprisoning tens of thousands — and Egypt is more divided today than ever before.
New to representative democracy, Egyptian lawmakers flubbed their chance to transform popular sovereignty into a functioning procedural democracy. Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party, in other words, failed to accomplish what the Justice and Development Party had done in Turkey, which was to translate an electoral win into a mandate to remove the influence of the military from public affairs. The military regime now in charge in Egypt — and coup leader Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is likely to run in the next presidential elections — only gives lip service to democratic procedures. It pushed through a constitutional referendum by effectively outlawing opposition to it. It has put Morsi and his confederates on trial, but the procedure is a farce. What has happened in Egypt — the effective transformation of the People back into merely the people — is happening in Crimea. It’s a fate that the rest of Ukraine must somehow avoid.
There are similar, if less extreme, cases of conflict over the mantle of the People in Venezuela and Thailand. Elections have provided very little in the way of legitimacy to the governments there. Daily protests by students in Caracas have called on Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro to resign. The conflict between red shirts and yellow shirts in Thailand continues with the government imposing martial law and protestors retreating to a Bangkok park. Of course, unlike Ukraine, there are no larger neighbors that have effectively seized portions of the territory of Venezuela, Thailand, or Egypt. Outside intervention turns a legitimation crisis into a geopolitical nightmare. Moreover, unlike these other countries, Ukraine has been forced to choose between competing blocs: a Transatlantic/European partnership and a Russian/Eurasian partnership. Such pressures inevitably polarize the population. The People, divided, will never be decided.
Democracy is messy. Choosing a People is considerably more difficult than having a monarch — or a military man — chosen for you. The People change their minds, argue among themselves, make mistakes. The People sometimes represent only a small sliver of the population and sometimes include within their ranks some noxious elements. And sometimes the People are divided by language and ethnicity in ways that can undercut national solidarity. Ultimately, only by designing a political system that represents all of their myriad incarnations can the people become the People, a system that has the space to develop and improve. If this doesn’t happen, governments will rise and fall, plazas will fill with successive waves of protestors, and the people will never become masters of their state.