From ballots to barricades... in Argentina?

Julio Burdman

Some predict an “orange revolution” in the making against Scioli.

Between 1998 to 2005, a number of contentious elections in Europe and Asia shook up world politics and created a huge uproar. I’m talking about the revolutions of various colours which took place in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon and other countries. Some people consider the “Arab Spring” and last year’s turmoil in Ukraine as part of the same ongoing process. These revolutions tended to take their names from the colours of the banners used by the protesting crowds — as in Ukraine’s “orange revolution” — and usually began with elections considered illegitimate and fraudulent by a mobilized opposition, which eventually led to the fall of ruling parties or regimes.

This sequence of falling governments was considered by many as a “fourth world democratic wave” after the third one which took place between the late seventies and the early nineties in Southern Europe, Latin America and the Communist countries of Eastern Europe. The third wave, a global-scale replacement of military dictatorships and one-party regimes with democratically elected governments, enjoys indisputable universal prestige. But the so-called fourth wave is still under discussion. There is a grey zone — it is not the same to overturn a textbook-defined dictatorship as it is an elected government with at least some democratic credentials.

What are the two main controversies? First of all, international intervention. These revolutions “in colour” were supported and applauded by international media, NGOs promoting democracy and even some international organizations and foreign governments. And in so doing, “the world” many times entered into a domestic political struggle between incumbents and an opposition keen to access power. In that sense, one of the loudest voices against was Vladimir Putin, who blamed “outside interference” for creating chaos. In a recent speech to the Duma, he said that “extremism (as he refers to protests against governments) is being used as a geo-political instrument for reviving spheres of influence,” adding that protests have “tragic consequences.” In Moscow’s eyes, “what happened in Ukraine and other countries is a lesson and a warning — we should do everything necessary so that nothing similar ever happens in Russia.” Clearly, for Putin there is the hand of Washington behind political demonstrations.

The second controversy is the very concept of democratic revolution within an electoral democracy. Political scientists have developed new categories such as “competitive authoritarianism” to describe presidents and governments who claim to be democratic and win elections but don’t behave as democratic leaders. Meanwhile other authors focus on what oppositions do as the key to democratic breakthroughs. Empowering the opposition requires hard and creative work by local opposition parties, civil society groups, the international democratic assistance community and international leaders. Election days are the arena of democratic change.

Most of this work on illiberal democracies is serious, but controversy and danger may arise when NGOs and politicians translate it into political action. Words become a very sensible issue — when should oppositions abandon the normal ideological competition to embrace a fight against an incumbent party which suddenly became an authoritarian regime? When does an election become a “democratic revolution”?

From this viewpoint, Mirtha Legrand’s words about “dictatorships” don’t look so harmless. After Tucumán, opposition leaders could gather together for the first time since the presidential campaign began. The accusation of fraud means that one shot can score many goals — the unity of the opposition, the weakening of the Victory Front, the possibility of defeating Daniel Scioli.

Can we experience here the transformation of ballots into barricades, as happened so many times in the post-Communist world? It looks unlikely because our democracy enjoys a stronger record of legitimacy and social credibility. But, as Bunce & Wolchik point out, these “colour” revolutions depend on opposition strategies. The labelling of incumbents as corrupt, non-republican, authoritarian and fraudulent was a common feature of these revolutions. And now we have Tucumán and questioning the legitimacy of the electoral rules. The opposition is playing hardball. If our political parties behave recalcitrantly, as if we are about to undergo a civic revolt, then its probability will increase.

Publicado en Buenos Aires Herald el 1 de septiembre de 2015. Versión publicada aquí.