It seems that 2019 might be the year of the protest.
In Prague last week, Czechs gathered in the largest demonstration since the fall of the Iron Curtain to demand the resignation of their prime minister over corruption accusations.
Not even two weeks earlier, as many as a million people demonstrated in Hong Kong against a law that would permit extradition to mainland China, forcing the government to back down.
In Kazakhstan, mass protests have led to thousands of arrests, and may not be over yet. And in Algeria, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika left office in April after protests; President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan followed a few days later.
The motives for each protest are unique. But experts say there is reason to believe they are also manifestations of a global trend in which masses of ordinary citizens are demanding more accountability from those in power.
“Since about 2010, we have seen a seeming rise in mobilization among people who don’t normally mobilize,” said Helen Margetts, a professor at Oxford University and co-author of a book on social media and political protests. That includes “young people, people from ethnic minorities and people in authoritarian states,” she said.
One reason, research suggests, is that global political shifts have created increased expectations of democratic accountability — even in autocracies — at the same time that authoritarianism is on the rise around the world.
Those two trends are colliding, giving citizens more to object to just as they increasingly feel entitled to object. Meanwhile, rising distrust of political establishments is leaving many citizens wary, even in democracies, of relying on the ballot box alone. Instead, they are taking to the street.
And because social media has made it far easier to mobilize public sentiment and organize mass action, thwarted expectations are quicker than ever to transform into large demonstrations — but perhaps more vulnerable than ever to falling apart before their goals are secured. That can create a self-reinforcing cycle of protest and instability.
Since the end of the Cold War, “everyone has to claim to be a democracy,” said Milan Svolik, a Yale professor who studies democratization and democratic backsliding.
Even in autocracies, political trends in recent decades have “increased citizen expectations that governments should be accountable to their people in meaningful ways,” two democracy experts, Thomas Carothers and Richard Youngs, wrote in a 2015 report for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
But those increased expectations of accountability have not always matched reality. In many post-Soviet states, for instance, there was little incentive for leaders to reform police forces and other security institutions inherited from the Cold War days, said Erica Marat, a professor at the National Defense University who studies democracy and security in the former Soviet bloc.
The result is that some of those governments, and particularly their punitive, militarized security services, did not have mechanisms in place to meet the urban middle classes’ rising expectations of democratic accountability.
That led to protests across the region, Dr. Marat said, as people realized that joining demonstrations was one of the only avenues for making political demands.
“Mass collective action never comes out of nowhere,” she said. “There are always smaller actions against the repressive state.” These can then draw in others who are more likely to act once they see that there is public support.
In Kazakhstan, for instance, smaller protests were part of a “learning process,” Dr. Marat said, which evolved into a larger mobilization.
A similar pattern has played out in other regions as well.
In Hong Kong, although the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests brought large numbers of people to the streets to demand democracy, they ultimately failed to force systemic change. But, Dr. Marat believes, those demonstrations may have contributed to this month’s successful protests against the proposed extradition law.
In Sudan, there were major protests in 2018 against rising food prices, followed by a schism within Mr. al-Bashir’s own party in August over his plan to change the Constitution to run for president again. That led to a series of public protests against the government in the early months of this year, culminating in Mr. al-Bashir’s ouster in mid-April.
Populism, and Backlash
The conflict between democratic expectations and rising authoritarianism is also driving protests within democracies.
Rising inequality, corruption scandals and frustration with seemingly unresponsive institutions have made the system feel less democratic to many citizens. That has led many to protest by voting in populists who promise to smash the flawed system and govern for the people.
But once in office, such leaders often crush dissent and dismantle checks and balances, concentrating power in their own hands and further exacerbating the conflict between democracy and authoritarianism. Now, that is helping drive more mass protests.
In Venezuela, for instance, Hugo Chávez was elected on a populist platform, but then he and his successor, Nicolás Maduro, stripped power from the legislature and packed the courts with allies. That left street protests as the main avenue for expressing dissent as the country suffered a catastrophic economic collapse.
In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, once an extremely popular elected leader, embraced authoritarian methods and oversaw the dismantling of much of Turkish democracy.
Turkey has not yet seen mass mobilizations like those in Hong Kong or Prague. But this week, after Mr. Erdogan’s chosen candidate for Istanbul mayor lost for a second time, thousands of people rallied in celebration — perhaps an implicit warning of what might happen if future elections are not given due deference.
Drawing on a multiyear data set called V-Dem, the political scientists Anna Lührmann and Staffan I. Lindberg concluded that since 1994, there has been a growing wave of what they call “autocratization,” with 75 countries taking significant steps toward authoritarianism.
But even in countries where that has not happened, corruption by high-level officials, particularly if committed with seeming impunity, can stir unrest.
The recent protests in the Czech Republic came after the police recommended fraud charges against Prime Minister Andrej Babis, who was seen as manipulating the justice ministry to prevent such charges from being filed.
So far, Mr. Babis has refused to bow to protesters’ demands, insisting that he will continue working to make the Czech Republic “great again.”
The Danger of Success
Mass protest is a two-edged sword, and a rise in mass mobilizations may bring not an era of resurgent democracy but one of instability.
A more basic phenomenon may be at play in the rise of mass protest movements: Social media, by making it far easier to spread outrage and mobilize people, has made political uprisings subject to the law of large numbers. Simply put, as many more protests are attempted, Dr. Margetts said, the number that succeed will also rise.
But research by Zeynep Tufekci, a social scientist at the University of North Carolina, suggests protests driven by social media are especially fragile. Because they are decentralized, the movements can collapse or be co-opted more easily.
And the gains from even successful protests can be short-lived, particularly if the new government feels pressure to consolidate power quickly.
Protests succeed not just on their own strength but, in large part, by forcing a country’s governing elites to realign their priorities and loyalties — and by giving them an opening to do so. That realignment, however, does not always favor demonstrators.
In Sudan, for example, Mr. al-Bashir was forced out — but the general who consolidated power after him has deployed troops against demonstrators. Dozens of people were killed, and many were brutalized. A similar story played out in Zimbabwe, where the 2017 ouster of the longtime dictator Robert Mugabe was followed by a violent crackdown.
“You can get people out on the street with social media,” Dr. Margetts said. “It’s the next part that’s tricky.”