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Behind a Pattern of Global Unrest, a Middle Class in Revolt

Author: Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia
February 20, 2014


For months now, protestors have gathered in the capitals of many developing nations—Turkey, Ukraine, Thailand, Venezuela, Malaysia, and Cambodia, among others—in demonstrations united by some key features. In nearly all these places, protestors are pushing to oust presidents or prime ministers they claim are venal, authoritarian, and unresponsive to popular opinion. Nearly all these governments, no matter how corrupt, brutal, and autocratic, actually won election in relatively free polls. And in nearly all these countries the vast majority of demonstrators hail from cosmopolitan areas: Kiev, Bangkok, Caracas, Istanbul, and other cities. The streets seem to be filled with the very people one might expect to support democracy rather than put more nails in its coffin.

This has been termed the protests of "the economic winners" and the revenge of the elites because of the composition of the activists. But these demonstrations actually include not just the wealthiest but much of the middle class in these countries, showing that the protests are more broadly based than often assumed. Still, these middle-class demonstrators pose a challenge to the longstanding theory that democratic change is driven by the growth of the middle class.

To be sure, the elected governments in Thailand, Ukraine, and Venezuela aren't classified as full democracies by watchdog organizations, such as Freedom House. While relatively free and fair polls put these leaders into office, in office these leaders have gerrymandered political systems, used money to buy votes, crushed media outlets and civil society, and generally acted like elected autocrats. But leaders such as Thailand's Yingluck Shinawatra or Ukraine's Viktor Yanukoych have also built broad enough bases among the poor, using populist rhetoric and policies to cut poverty to win elections. The willingness of demonstrators in some of these nations (though not all) to bypass democratic politics for street justice has further undermined democracy and added fuel to violent crises.

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