In case you missed it, Viktor Yanukovich’s U-turn on European integration has incensed many Ukrainians, who began by demanding that the government resume its course toward EU integration and away from Russian domination. The protests have since escalated to call for Yanukovich’s resignation — in large part because of his government’s missteps in dealing with the demonstrations.
Also, since October, mass demonstrations have been raging in Thailand among protestors* demanding that Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra step down amid accusations that her government is in cahoots with deposed leader Thaksin Shinawatra (in exile since 2008). The conflict is currently in something of a deadlock, with Ms. Yingluck saying she will talk with the opposition but not step down, and the demonstrators saying they will stay at it until she capitulates.
Jay Ulfelder is skeptical that mass movements like this can channel their influence into real political and institutional power. He is quite is right that such movements often fail to translate short-term strategic success into long-term political victories. It’s hard enough for them to turn even tactical effectiveness into strategic success, much less translate victory into real political change. I guess if it were easy, everyone would do it.
But here are three reasons why I think the mass uprisings underway in both places are “the real deal” as nonviolent mass campaigns go.
- Both campaigns have employed multiple methods of nonviolent action. I’ve often harped on this point, but mass movements that do more than just demonstrations show a level of strategic versatility and adaptation that helps them to outlast the repression coming down upon them. In both Thailand and Ukraine, in addition to mass demonstrations, activists have called for general strikes. Thai protestors are occupying the ministry of finance in Bangkok. In Ukraine there are calls to boycott Russian goods, nationally-dispersed demonstrations, and nonviolent occupations.
- The campaigns have elicited elite defections. Kiev’s chief of police has resigned in Ukraine, and there were early (as yet unconfirmed) reports that Yanukovich’s chief of staff also resigned. EU sanctions of Yanukovich’s crew might generate more of these. Indeed, we have seen activists using creative strategies — like talking to police, offering them chocolate, and praying in front of them — to promote this phenomenon. In my research with Maria Stephan, we found that when security forces (just one of many pillars of support) shift their loyalty, campaigns tended to succeed 60% more often. In Thailand, the major defection has been by formal opposition leaders whose no-confidence vote against Ms. Yingluck was unsuccessful. Time will tell whether more influential defections occur in that case.
- Participation is large. Reportedly, there are hundreds of thousands of people engaged in the campaigns in both places. That’s a lot. That said, participation seems to be growing in Ukraine and dwindling in Thailand.
Here are two reasons why the Ukraine case may have better odds of reaching its goals than the Thai case:
- Participation in Ukraine is diverse. In Ukraine, the political opposition to Yanukovich seems to include a broad base of participants that cross the political spectrum and are nationally dispersed. In Thailand, although the participants are demographically somewhat diverse, the polity is quite polarized between the pro-Thaksin groups and their opponents, as well as among other political groups. But the opposition protestors are essentially calling for a return to the monarchy, which is certainly controversial among democrats in the country who wish to maintain the electoral system. The polarization of the country also extends to ambivalence about a military coup, which some would welcome while others fear it would set the country back in a number of ways.
- In Ukraine, repression has backfired (so far). Last weekend, police in Ukraine used heavy-handed tactics in an attempt to suppress the growing popular movement and make people go home. The repression had the opposite effect. Instead, more people turned out to protest that violence while calling for EU sanctions against the government, and reportedly hundreds of thousands of people are now engaged in human blockades, nonviolent occupations of government buildings, demonstrations, and the like. In Thailand, on the other hand, the police have used rubber bullets against protestors in recent days, but overall the “restrained” nature of the police response has actually won Ms. Yingluck’s government some sympathy among the population.
So, which of these campaigns has the best chance of success?
Among the two cases, if I were the betting type, I’d bet on Ukraine.
* Correction: This piece originally misidentified the protestors demanding the Prime Minister’s resignation as “red shirts”.