Nobody can regret the departure of a president who had shown his willingness to shoot protesters, and that of another, who had brought back to life the most hostile laws against women on record in his country. Be that as it may: the president of Ukraine and the president of Egypt were both elected by universal suffrage, in chaotic conditions, though recognized as more or less honest by the international community. Certainly, both presidents, once in power, had implemented policies radically different to those for which they were elected. In Egypt, the majority of the people were hoping that someone would help them get rid of the previous dictatorship, and President Morsi, elected for that purpose, supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, had launched on the contrary a fundamentalist march, hostile to all fundamental freedoms, and for which the majority of the people wanted nothing to do with. In Ukraine, the majority of the people were hoping that someone would help them get rid of corruption and that the cooperation agreement negotiated with the European Union would be signed finally, and President Yanukovich, elected for that purpose, had allowed on the contrary corruption to thrive – for his personal benefit – and, supported by the Russian speaking community in the country, had broken all the agreements prepared with Brussels.
When democracy is thus betrayed by those it brought to power, what role do people have? Wait for the next elections or, on the contrary, act by means of force, before an irreversible evolution brings into question the very foundations of democracy? A priori, the answer is obvious: the people must act, take to the streets, urge leaders to make good on their promises. And, if they fail to persuade them, overthrow them. Ukrainian and Egyptian people, like others before them, were right to do so. Still others are going down this path, for good reasons, in particular Thailand and Venezuela.
But the choice is not always so clear-cut as that. Should we accept the start of very violent demonstrations by a minority, defeated fair and square in elections, trying to stop the preferences of the majority from being implemented? Should institutions yield to the voice on the streets? Of course not. The Parliament is better than The Grand-Place. So, what conditions distinguish legitimate revolts, as opposed to those that are not? In what cases can a majority turn against the power that another majority has elected? In what cases can a minority refuse the rule of the majority?
The challenge in question is not just theoretical. Some people, even in the West, might think that what happened in Ukraine gives them the right to continue to take to the streets indefinitely against this or that reform that they do not agree to, and to do so in a violent way, till they overthrow the government. This was evident in France with the excesses against same-sex marriage, the environmental tax, or this past Saturday, against the airport project of Notre Dame des Landes, near Nantes: some of these protesters probably thought they could lead political powers on a slippery road to get out of hand, to go too far, to breach the national constitution by resorting to force, thereby legitimizing their own violence. Dangerous game.
A revolt against a democratically elected power is legitimate only if it does not respect the Constitution on which it is based. However, if that same power, elected according to the rules, does not implement its election manifesto, and even if it accomplishes the opposite of what it was elected to do, there is no justification for anyone to undertake to topple it, as long as it respects the constitutional limits of its authority. Therefore caution should be taken not to give the most extreme demonstrations in democracies our full backing. And verify that exist and operate in these countries, procedures to limit the excesses of all regimes: the very separation of powers, the existence of a Constitutional Court and freedom of the press.
In order to avoid the danger of seeing the weakening of democracy globally, there is an urgent need to understand that democracy cannot be reduced to an election more or less free of leaders more or less honorable.