Thousands of demonstrators trying to topple Hong Kong’s legal ruler C.Y. Leung and set terms for the 2017 election symbolize a new political trend: Whichever constitutional way a ruler has been brought to power, ability to continue might depend on the consent of the social media-connected populace forcing its will onto the streets. That at least has been the case with Mohamed Morsi of Egypt and Ukraine’s Vladimir Yanukovych. Leung is untainted by corruption, yet even if he continues, his effectiveness has been badly compromised.
In the past two years, a political trend has emerged that takes legitimacy of government into perilous and unchartered territory. Democratically-elected leaders of culturally diverse countries such as Egypt, Thailand and Ukraine have been overthrown by street protests.
Within weeks of an elected government coming to power in newly independent South Sudan, the country collapsed into violence. War has flared up again in Iraq where the finest minds in international development working with unlimited funds have failed to stop conflict.
And most recently, protesters in Hong Kong, which enjoys a swathe of freedoms and high standards of living, are demanding to choose their own leader, despite not even being a sovereign state.
Since the end of the Cold War, the broadly accepted method of delivering authority to a government has been through voter choice at the ballot box. In the case of dramatic change such as the overthrow of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak or Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi, the what- next question has been answered by the holding of elections, often under a new constitution and the watch of international observers.
But as a safety valve against discontent, elections now fail to do their job. The new reality is that tenure in office is set not through an agreed electoral cycle, but by ability to keep protesters off the streets.
The pact between government and citizens, therefore, is being determined by far more obscure elements, drawing us back to 1762 when Jean-Jacques Rousseau coined the phrase “The Social Contract.” This challenged the right of monarchies to rule and emphasized that power should be in the hands of that indefinable entity of the state, whose architecture would be decided by an equally indefinable force — the will of the people.
“Each of the recent protests are different and respond to different issues,” says John Morrison, author of “The Social License,” which examines how organizations acquire and lose legitimacy. “But some clearly relate specifically to what might be called ‘political license,’ attempts by populations to renegotiate the social contract granted to specific governments — or at least to make such governments more accountable.”
Constitutions are written to define this contract. Elections are held to determine the will of the people through majority vote. So why now is this being so readily torn apart?
The cases largely fall into two categories. One, such as Iraq and South Sudan, involves societies with deep, historical mistrust where the use of Western-style elections has failed to build fair institutions. The result has been catastrophic.
The other is more complex, involving educated and comparatively wealthy stakeholders whose societies are mentored Western democracies.
The Ukrainian constitution, for example, states that the president is elected for a “five-year term on the basis of universal, equal and direct suffrage, by secret ballot.” Yanukovych lasted four years, until February 2014.
Egypt’s provisional 2011 constitution provided for a secret ballot and a presidential term of four years. Street protests and a military coup ended Morsi’s tenure after a year.
Thailand’s Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, elected in a landslide with wide support among the poor, was deposed after less than three years, again after protests followed by military intervention.
Hong Kong’s chief executive should serve until 2017, but until this weekend protesters wanted him out now. Their main objection is his support for a clause written into their Basic Law, a constitution published 24 years ago — before many of them were born: The ultimate aim, it states, is to elect the chief executive “by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.”
The nominating committee, seen as a vetting mechanism used by the Communist Party of China, is at the heart of their discontent. The committee follows the constitution, but devalues the implicit promise of respecting people’s wishes expressed in the words “universal suffrage.” One-person, one-vote is not enough as the protesters doubt that Beijing as vetting authority has Hong Kong’s interest at heart.
Two elements appear to be behind this current wave of discontent around the world.
First is what has become known as social media. As technology and communications improve such media become more powerful.
“Social media connects protest to both internal dissent and the wider world, independently of mainstream media and any biases of limitations that may have,” says Richard Sambrook, former BBC director of news. “And as a pure means of self expression it gives meaning, momentum and unity to what might otherwise be individual acts of smaller protest.”
Second — and most importantly — Western leaders have diminished the rule-of-law by supporting some protests, notably in Egypt and Ukraine where the elected governments were seen to pose strategic threats. Morsi represented Islamic extremism and Yanukovych symbolized an anti-Western Russia pushing influence too far.
The West could have taken a lead, pointing out that creating a strong democracy is a long, messy process; high levels of corruption and mismanagement are inevitable in the early stages, and the best way forward is to follow the constitution and exercise choice at the next election.
Instead, it opted for immediate strategic interests against the very values of fair governance it advocates.
The track record so far in this trend for changing governments has not been good.
Ukraine has lost Crimea and fights a separatist war. There are car bombings in Egypt where human-rights activists say repression is now worse than in the days of Mubarak. A military government controls Thailand. There is war in Iraq, Libya, South Sudan and others.
Hong Kong remains on a knife-edge.
One strain running through the protests is that while knowing whom or what they want to overthrow, there is a lack of clarity about which system or individual is a viable alternative.
Hong Kong protesters are demanding elections carried out to “international standards.” But those standards are far from clear.
Britain’s prime ministers have no direct electoral mandate. US presidents are chosen by indirect election, state by state, via the procedurally intricate Electoral College system. Neither, it seems, would satisfy demands in Hong Kong.
And with $38,000 GDP per capita and world-class transport, education and health systems, Hong Kong shows this is as much about dignity and control as it is about living standards and money.
A quarter of century ago, after the end of the Cold War, Western-style democracy was given free rein to prove its worth, and there have been notable successes, mostly in Europe and Latin America. But such governance may have reached a stage where both mentors and those campaigning for it are at a loss as to where the end game lies.
Democracy, after all, represents hope and fairness. For democracy to be a system of government, there must be adherence to the rule-of-law, and the West’s support for the abrupt tearing up of constitutions destroys benchmarks of governance. The way forward is precarious.
Rousseau’s social contract also had a problematic track record. It began with the concept that the will of the people would create a stable foundation for future government — 27 years later came the French revolution, the guillotine, mass killings and military rule by Napoleon.
In that story are echoes of the Arab Spring, Iraq, Ukraine and — although too soon to tell — possibly Hong Kong.
Humphrey Hawksley is a BBC correspondent specializing in development.