The Four Stages of Peaceful Transition to Democracy

Initially, the so-called dissidents or civic activists seem to be acting alone

Creating a unified front to defy a dictatorship or to promote democratization does not require a shared ideology but a shared strategy. / Marcos Evora

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Ariel Hidalgo, Miami, 6 July 2024 — The stages of peaceful resistance to totalitarian rule vary from country to country. However, by analyzing liberation movements we can identify common characteristics because, in every case except that of Yugoslavia, there was a centralized economy in which the state held the reins of economic production. This required the creation of a huge bureaucracy that had no real interest in producing things and was incapable of effectively controlling the process. This led to structural economic crises, which led to public discontent.

In the first stage, dissident groups can expect only minimal support from the public. For the most part, the so-called dissidents or civic activists seem to be acting alone. They are, as Vaclav Havel would say, “generals without soldiers.” However, they represent a large silent majority afraid to say publicly what the dissidents are saying. During this period, the vast majority might participate in massive public rallies in support of the government or even join organized mobs besieging the homes of dissidents in public acts of repudiation.

The main task for dissidents at the beginning of their struggle is to denounce the violations perpetrated by the regime as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the Helsinki Accords. However, it later becomes clear that, rather than just denouncing the oppressors’ violations, it is more important to create an awareness of human rights in the minds of the oppressed. This is the first step in the peaceful struggle against a totalitarian regime, to create in the public’s mind an awareness of civil rights, not just because these rights have been proscribed but because they, the people, are entitled to them as human beings.

The main task for dissidents at the beginning of their struggle is to denounce the violations perpetrated by the regime

Dissidents also begin circulating leaflets or clandestine statements. They then move on to staging lightning-strike demonstrations, though not often and usually with no more than twenty or thirty people. Curious onlookers take note but are not willing to participate and the demonstrations usually end in arrests a short time later.

Little by little, the public begins to become aware of the dissidents’ existence (or in the case of Cuba, of “the human rights people”) — usually through shortwave foreign radio transmissions — and the concept of human rights. One could say this is the beginning of the second stage.

In this period, when someone becomes the object of abuse by authorities, there are often accusations of human rights violations or, in the case of some eastern European countries, of the Helsinki Accords. This is a sign that what the dissidents have been preaching is beginning to sink in. A larger number of people begin joining the various dissident groups.

Little by little, people stop playing by the government’s rules. They skip meetings and public gatherings but do not openly challenge the status quo. They become less and less fearful as the number of like-minded people increases. They are now in the prelude to non-cooperation, still proceeding but with great caution and not yet ready to completely abandon the pretense that they support the regime.

At this stage the vast majority of the population is not willing to engage in acts of civil disobedience. Many are, however, willing to make legal appeals or apply pressure in the name of socialism or, in the case of Cuba, in the name of the Revolution. They call upon the regime to follow the rule of law, or abide by the constitution, which the government presents to the world as evidence that it is democratic but which, in reality, it is not inclined to follow.

At this stage the vast majority of the population is not willing to engage in acts of civil disobedience

In the third stage, a large portion of the public has lost its fear. Though the regime might continue holding mass rallies, it has lost its ability to summon as many people as it did before. It compensates by exerting pressure at workplaces and schools, encouraging attendance during working hours or class times.

It is also not as easy for authorities to drum up public support for acts of repudiation against dissidents and it is forced to use its own plainclothes security forces instead. In fact, it is common for such repressive police actions against individual citizens to be met with widespread public rejection. Public protests also begin occurring when authorities impose unpopular measures. These could include, for example, strikes or riots by transportation workers, or sit-ins in front of public buildings, and even acts of solidarity with a group of dissidents who are engaged in some type of protest such as a hunger strike. Something similar happened in Cuba with strikers of the San Isidro Movement in November 2020.

This is also when the first public demonstrations begin. They start spontaneously, without dissidents having to organize them. Generally, they are violently repressed by authorities. The demonstrators demanding change do not number in the dozens but rather in the hundreds or even the thousands, which destroys the myth that everyone supports the regime. This helps raise awareness even more among other segments of the population, which heralds the start of what we could consider to be the fourth and final stage.

At this point, we begin to see more dialogue among dissident groups as they begin to coalesce. We could even see a discreet rapprochement between dissidents and some reformist elements within the regime. To create a united front against a dictatorship, or to promote a process of democratization, the various factions do not need to be aligned ideologically, only strategically. This is akin to two people walking in the same direction even though their destinations may be different or they may ultimately go their separate ways. It is not terribly important if they are social democrats, conservatives or liberals. What draws them together is their goal of democracy and a shared strategy of non-violence. Together they can now call for demonstrations with a preconceived plan.

In Romania, a group of older die-hard communists who were part of the Ceaucescu regime was defeated by a coalition of parties of different stripes. We have also seen this happen with dictatorships on the other end of the political spectrum. In Chile opposition groups joined forces against the Pinochet regime to campaign for a plebiscite and free elections despite the fact that there were subtle ideological differences among them. Ultimately, they won.

This is also the stage at which activists draft manifestos and many people sign letters demanding the release of political prisoners

This is also the stage at which activists draft manifestos and many people sign letters demanding the release of political prisoners. Ultimately, amid new and much larger marches, a new united civic front emerges and calls for a general strike.

It is at this point, under these conditions, when a dialogue can be begin to either agree on a transition or to present an ultimatum to the regime. The opposition is confident that it has widespread public support and that the regime cannot manipulate them. The duration and timing at which these stages occur differ depending on conditions in each country.

In Czechoslovakia, for example, Charter 77 was the first important initiative that brought dissidents together to form united front, which greatly increased their chances of victory, which Civic Forum achieved twelve years later. In Poland, however, it took only five years from the emergence of Coss-Kor till the birth of the Solidarity trade union movement because there already existed in this country a deep-rooted Catholic faith that was incompatible with Marxism’s atheist ideology. At this time there also happened to be a Polish-born pope pope, John Paul II, who instilled a strong will for change with his phrase “Do not be afraid.”


Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from El libro de la Liberación [The Book of Liberation]. 14ymedio is publishing it with the author’s permission.

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