How can ideas that toppled a dictator be used today to defend democracy? In this latest article for The Guardian, Srdja Popovic speaks from his experiences with OTPOR! to explain how people can use laughter, unity, and nonviolence to defend their democratic institutions from destruction.
Photo: An Otpor! rally in Belgrade, 2000. Radu Sigheti/Reuters.
If you want a citizens’ movement to grow quickly, humour is a better strategy than anger. I was one of the founders of the Otpor! (Resistance!) grassroots movement in Serbia, which in 2000 helped topple Slobodan Miloševi?. With democracy in Europe today challenged by populism, perhaps some of the lessons we learned at the time are worth recalling. In Belgrade, our movement started with a prank: we took an oil barrel, painted a picture of Miloševi? on it, and set it up in the middle of Belgrade’s largest shopping district. Next to it we placed a baseball bat. Then we stood aside, inconspicuously. Before long, shoppers were standing in line to take a swing at the barrel and express their feelings for the president. The police arrived, but could do nothing but drag the Miloševi? barrel away. Pictures of the incident spread. Otpor! became a household name.
Of course, pushing a warmongering autocrat out of power is different from defending democracy in places in which it is meant to have taken root but has come under threat. When seeking to put an end to dictatorship, the task is to erode the tools and institutions that serve the regime and its strongman – indeed, the goal is to shake up the status quo entirely. Defending democracy, however, means finding ways to defend democratic institutions and principles from those who want to undermine them, even if they’re elected officials. It means creating leverage to block governments or political forces that seek to dismantle such pillars of democracy as an independent judiciary, parliamentary oversight, minority rights, or press freedom.
I’ve spent the last 12 years heading Canvas, an NGO that helps pro-democracy activists in Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and also parts of the former Soviet Union. It is no small paradox that Europe today has become a region where democracy needs to be protected in new, vigorous ways. Democratic backsliding is of course particularly worrisome in countries that are relative newcomers to the EU (Poland and Hungary joined in 2004). But the spread of illiberalism is a major concern in many established “traditional” democracies as well.
Campaigners can be successful if they have vision, unity and a plan of action. Most of all, they must stick to the principles of nonviolence. When we launched Otpor! as a civil resistance movement, the situation in my country was desperate. The vast majority had turned their backs on politics. Yet a tiny group of students managed to grow into a movement of 70,000 people which ultimately defeated Miloševi?. Otpor! was successful where others had failed. One explanation is that our strategy made use of the political vacuum between existing power structures and public dissatisfaction. Today in Europe, the vacuum between political elites and disgruntled voters is being exploited by populists – people who offer anger, not hope. But calling out populism will only go so far if citizens aren’t encouraged to take action.
Grassroots movements can be leaderless. They can sprout up outside traditional party structures and they can transcend those dividing lines. In Poland, after the Law and Justice party gained power in 2015, a civil society movement called the Committee for the Defence of Democracy rallied opposition to it across partisan lines.
In Romania last year, huge crowds of up to half a million people repeatedly took to the streets to say no to government plans to shield corrupt officials from prosecution. The movement reached beyond the urban, educated classes and capitalised on widespread public frustration with corruption. Romania has the largest number of officials prosecuted for corruption in Europe. People wanted to keep up the pressure. In the face of their protests, the government was forced to backtrack on plans to push through changes by emergency decree.
Combining protests and symbolic gestures of civil disobedience is important. In Poland, women have taken to the streets to fight for their rights. Law and Justice seeks to enforce traditionalist religious values across public life. Resisting this is hard, but one tipping point was reached in 2016, when 250,000 women forced the government to withdraw its initial plan for an almost total ban on abortion. Not only did they protest in large numbers across some 150 cities and towns, they also initiated a one-day strike – which forced businesses and political elites to sit up and pay attention. In Hungary, where elections are due in April, a group of NGOs recently launched a movement called Country for All, which seeks amendment to an electoral law that threatens the democratic process.
Laughter is a potent weapon. In Romania, protesters carried large cardboard cut-outs representing the country’s leaders dressed as convicts, in black-and-white striped prison shirts. In Germany, people in the town of Wunsiedel mocked the regular marches held by rightwing extremists. Local residents and businesses made pledges to donate €10 to an anti-extremism organisation for every metre the far-right crowd marched. In Finland, people came out dressed as clowns holding acrobat hoops to counter a white supremacist group that organised street patrols against immigrants. Humour can be a powerful tool against absurd, hateful attitudes.
To stand up to populism, Europeans need to reinvent a democratic narrative. Two things keep democracy and freedom alive: strong institutions and active citizens. It is a two-way street: institutions are there to deliver to citizens, and citizens must in turn defend democratic institutions from abuse. Europeans may have taken democracy for granted for too long. Those of us who have taken part in civil resistance movements in the past know all too well that apathy is what authoritarians count on to get their way.
A whole toolbox for campaigning can be put to use against illiberal forces. Sharing your experiences helps to inspire others and sharpen their strategies. The bottom line is that democracy is simply too serious a matter to be left to politicians or parties alone. And grassroots campaigning is more effective when it’s also fun. Populists, just like autocrats, are weakened when they become objects of derision.
To read this article on The Guardian, click here.