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When are street protesters entitled to push for the overthrow a democratically elected government — and when not? At what point does an elected leader squander — through corruption, incompetence or authoritarian excess — the legitimacy conferred by the ballot box? When do conflicts between classes or political factions exceed the normal bounds of healthy political competition inherent in democracies?
To some extent, the fact that we have to ask these questions mirrors an age in which many societies aren’t clear-cut dictatorships or obvious liberal democracies, but rather something in between: “illiberal democracies” or “hybrid regimes” that combine the trappings of democracy with various authoritarian mechanisms. In such a world, situations like the one in Thailand — where self-described “Democrats” end up blockading polling stations to prevent their fellow citizens from voting — aren’t necessarily as unusual as one might think.
It’s natural for people who live in democratic societies to root for those elsewhere who seem to be fighting for the same values. It was relatively easy to take sides during the Arab Spring, which offered a relatively clear disposition of forces: dictators vs. demonstrators. Judging by some of these more recent stories, though, we can’t expect matters to be so clear. The current wave of revolutionary discontent around the world is anything but black and white.
Christian Caryl, the editor of Foreign Policy’s Democracy Lab, is a senior fellow at the Legatum Institute. He is the author of “Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century.”
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.