January 20, 2021, a new president—an old politician—is peaceably inaugurated in Washington, D.C., against a backdrop of proliferating fears, lurid fantasies, familiar rhetorical flourishes, fatiguing analyses, blurry concepts, and weird events. Partisans and observers leverage the language of exceptionalism (‘this is unprecedented’) and inevitability (‘this is a logical culmination of…’) in an attempt to get a grip on what is, what has been going on. What to call the actions of a collection of citizens who broke and entered upon what is ostensibly their own property, with the aim of interrupting the affirmation of what is also ostensibly their own will? ‘This is unprecedented’—but then again, no: these griefs, this disunity is nothing new. These are the energies summoned and solicited by the democratic organization of a polity, a polity that has never been united, and they are not unusual. The ordinariness of sometimes, often, incandescent divisions is one thing that we had hoped to elaborate in the context of this election : series. To move beyond the defensive posture of jaded wonder coupled with a smug ‘I told you so’ at the state of things. That, and to gather together as broad a picture as we could of the overdetermined fulcra that democratic elections are: the fierce, anguished, conflictual, historically determined energies that are brought to bear on a week, a day, a decision, a draft legal document, a legislative body, and that are meant to result in a series of actions and policies that answer, mollify, or reward these energies.
A society of solidarity and care emerging in response to state incompetence and repression enters the stage of military dictatorship at the outset of 2021. After five months of sustained peaceful protests, the number of people taking part in weekly marches is now waning as a result of poor weather, exhaustion, emigration, and pandemic spread; increasing are the networks of horizontal organization and solidarity initiatives from below. From August 2020 to January 2021, the Belarusian state and society have undergone several rapid metamorphoses: on the level of the state, a shift from state-capitalism with soft-authoritarian constitutional rule to a military dictatorship; on the level of civil society, a mass transformation of individuals into citizens and political subjects, active in a horizontal self-governance without leaders; on the level of gender relations, a crack in the hegemony of patriarchy; on the level of the protest movement, a morphing of an uprising into a revolution. If the August election presented an occasion for this process, prepared by the global context (such as the COVID pandemic and economic crisis) and local forces (such as the erosion of the welfare state and generational change), it was an event following that election that spurned this sustained protest movement. The riot police and other forces of the repressive state apparatus unleashed a wave of terror unprecedented in post-Soviet Belarus. What followed was a sustained act of defiance and resistance. A protest against fraudulent elections turned into a revolutionary resistance because in the terror actions that followed, the state authorities became identical with its repressive apparatus. It became clear that the police forces, riot police in particular, have been trained, sustained, privileged, and subsidized in the society with the sole purpose of doing exactly what they did—exercise brutality on the citizens—while fully believing themselves justified to do so, seeing themselves as the true citizens and rulers of the country. As it turned out in retrospect, protesters’ demand for the end of police violence and to hold those responsible for the crimes accountable amounted to a demand to overturn the entire system, because the system based on police violence was built in the course of the past 26 years since the democratic election of Aleksandr Lukashenko in 1994, who has retained the office of presidency since then. In other words, the Belarusian protest expressed a refusal to live in a country in which such terror is a possibility at all, which was tantamount to a revolutionary demand to remake a society as a whole.
At the time of this writing, over thirty thousand people have been detained (most on charges of violating the law on mass gatherings stipulated in Article 23.34), countless people have either left or were forced to leave the country, over 150 people are considered political prisoners, and several are dead since election day on August 9, 2020. The demands of the protesters have not changed: end police repression; release all political prisoners; hold new, fair elections. In the past five months, the protest movement has adopted neither a cohesive political program nor a geopolitical orientation. The world, and the post-Soviet sphere in particular, is following with a keen eye and a series of questions suspended in the air: Is governance without legitimacy, based solely on a repressive apparatus, possible? If so, how? Is peaceful protest insufficient for revolutionary transformation? When the times comes, will the forms of protest, characterized by solidarity, horizontality, and leaderlessness, subordinate or be subordinated by the content of oppositional politicians with the hegemonic neoliberal agenda waiting at bay? The Belarusian revolution has provided an alternative to the color revolutions in the region in the mode of its protest; will it provide an alternative in the mode of its politics? In what follows, I provide a timeline of the events, not so much from the point of view of heroes, a series of heroic actions, or sacrifices by the Belarusian civil society—of which there are many—but from the point of view of the dynamism of the protest with respect to the repression of the authorities that both suppresses and stimulates it. The meaning of these events, no doubt, is determined retroactively from the standpoint of January 2021—i.e., the events that appeared decisive from the standpoint of September have changed their meaning by January—and the current standpoint is characterized by the stalemate between the oppressive apparatus and peaceful protest. While the record of these events also serves an archival purpose, the standpoint of dynamism of the mass movement from which this story is told also serves as a reminder that any stalemate or disappearance of resistance is only apparent, so long as the causes of the resistance persist.
In 1998, the Green Party in Germany ran an election campaign with the slogan “New majorities only with us.” But what kind of majorities can elections create? I might be asking the obvious, given that elections are decided by majority votes channeled through an elaborate system of representatives. The elections in Germany in 1998 provide a case to complicate this notion of political and consequently national majority, because the Green Party and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) campaigned by centering social justice and by addressing the politically marginalized and ethnic minority segments of the populace, specifically German-Turks. A new political majority was constituted in 1998, and old convictions of an ethnically homogeneous nation were challenged through several statements, policies, and ultimately legal reforms. The figure of the foreigner (Ausländer) was deployed productively by all parties and ultimately facilitated the shift into a new national self-conception within a neoliberal Europe. In fact, I think, more than “new majorities,” a new minority emerged in the years after the 1998 elections—a Muslim minority. And for this minority to emerge and remain productive for political purposes, a longer history of migration built on the logic of return had to be undone.
How so? Let me explain through a personal-political account of ever-shifting Turkish life in Germany.
In a rare 2013 interview, right after his official election as the 2014 prime ministerial candidate for the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), Reuters spoke to the then head of BJP’s election campaign, now twice-elected prime minister of India—Narendra Modi. On being asked whether he regretted the Gujarat riots that had claimed over two thousand Muslim lives during his term as the state’s chief minister, he said: “If someone else is driving a car and we’re sitting behind, even then if a puppy comes under the wheel, will it be painful or not? Of course, it is. [Whether] I’m a chief minister or not, I’m a human being. If something bad happens anywhere, it is natural to be sad.”
This lackadaisical comment had then sparked widespread outrage from his political opponents, who demanded accountability and apology from Modi for the deaths during the riots. The Gujarat riots were amongst the worst accounts of communal violence in recent times. Considering all that unfolded after Narendra Modi’s re-election in 2019, one can now retroactively read in his 2013 comment—in his refusal to condemn the violence or take any accountability for what had transpired—a striking precedent for what would become the country’s future direction.
On December 11, 2019, the BJP government, with Narendra Modi at its helm, passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which provided citizenship for immigrants from the neighboring countries of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, on the condition that they were not of Muslim ethnicity. This act must be seen in tandem with the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which cast into doubt the citizenship status of many Indian Muslims while granting immunity from deportation to non-Muslims under the CAA. For the first time in Indian history, legislation directly challenging the secular fabric of the Indian constitution was put into motion.Continue reading “election : india 2014 – 2020”
(adapted from Kamara’s article “Burkina Faso: Nothing will be as it was before,” published in Africa is a Country, October 2019)
A few years after the Jasmine Revolutions had shaken up North African countries, events came to a boil south of the Sahara in Burkina Faso. On October 31, 2014, massive street protests toppled President Blaise Compaoré who was in power for 27 years. Revolutions, uprisings or insurrections, whatever label you give them, tend to be presented as clear-cut turning points in history books, but the truth is that the first few years after such upheavals are often confused, complex, and sometimes downright demoralizing. It is still not clear how the outcome of the 2014 Burkina Faso insurrection will go down in history books—indeed, there is not yet even consensus on how the events should be referred to, though with time, the term “insurrection” has come to displace the term “revolution.” Awaiting the clarity of hindsight, here is a look back through the eyes of an ordinary bystander to the extraordinary events that occurred at the end of October five years ago.
In the lead-up to Peru’s presidential election in the spring of 1990, sitting president Alan García was deeply unpopular. García, who was ineligible for reelection, represented Peru’s center-left, social democratic Aprista party. Like much of the region, Peru was still in the grips of the Latin American debt crisis that first hit in 1982. Rampant inflation was everywhere. García’s populist government had initially managed to stave off the disaster, but by 1988, García’s measures were no longer succeeding and by 1989, inflation was at 2000%. Furthermore, as economic conditions worsened, the brutality of the Maoist insurrectionary group Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) increased, and so too did the brutality of the state’s response. In January 1989, García’s popular approval, once as high as 90%, had fallen to 9%. Among the electorate, distrust for political parties in general was at an all-time high, and the successive failures of two centrist governments—García’s and that of his predecessor, Fernando Belaúnde Terry—from the two major centrist parties, coupled with a voter preference for centrist policies, left a marked void in Peru’s political landscape.
Kenya was established as a republic in December 1964 after gaining independence from British colonial rule, and Jomo Kenyatta was elected Kenya’s first president. In 1969, Kenyatta transformed the new nation into a one-party state, leaving the Kenya African National Union (KANU) as the sole party that won all parliamentary seats through 1997. Kenyatta died in office in 1978, and Daniel arap Moi—then vice president—continued the presidency, becoming the country’s second president.
When fierce democratic pluralism swept across Africa in the late 1980s, Moi restored multiparty politics in 1992. Amid an outcry of election rigging, he won that year’s elections, as well as the 1997 election. In 2002, he declared that he would retire from the presidency and groomed Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Jomo Kenyatta, to lead KANU and take over the presidency. However, Uhuru Kenyatta was to face fierce competition from Mwai Kibaki, who campaigned on the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) party—a coalition of several small parties—promising new constitutional reforms and an end to government corruption. The outline below details the events that led to a new constitution and a new era of democracy in Kenya. Continue reading “election : kenya 2002 . . .”
The Zimbabwean elections in 2008 arrived during total economic disrepair and a peak moment of national frustration with the government, which had been controlled by Robert Mugabe and his party Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) since the country’s independence in 1980. This nominally socialist party that won the right to Black-majority rule decades prior was faced in the 2000’s with resistance to the violent strong-arm tactics Mugabe used to establish single party rule, conduct unsuccessful land reforms, and retain power. Electoral resistance to the regime had been raised before, with a contested election in 2002. At that time, however, Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party remained in power with the support of the African Union (AU), despite condemnations of misconduct from international observers and the opposition party: the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which was founded in 1999 by members of Zimbabwe’s trade union alliances in opposition to a constitutional referendum giving powers to the government to conduct land reforms. The AU’s support in 2002 is one of several markers showing that at the start of the decade, despite corroborated reports of political violence and social upheaval, Mugabe’s hold on the presidency was strong enough that challenges to its legitimacy—however valid—could be easily put aside (especially by other national leaders whose power may have been more or less democratically established). However, by 2007, with the environment of corruption, the growing inflation escalating from 8,000% to 100,000% by early 2008, and unemployment reaching throughout the country, the citizens of Zimbabwe were increasingly desperate for a change in regime. Continue reading “election : zimbabwe 2008”
In June 1986, in a run-off election, former UN General Secretary Kurt Waldheim was elected president of Austria—amid accusations of war crimes. Waldheim’s campaign precipitated a long-delayed reckoning by the Austrian people with their role in the murder of millions during WWII. This is the story of the events leading up to that election.
1985 : Kurt Waldheim declares his intention to run for president of Austria, as a representative of the right-leaning Austrian People’s Party. In January of this year, his memoirs are published, in German and English translation. The book details his 40-year career in the diplomatic service since 1945, spent variously as Austrian Ambassador to the UN, Ambassador to Canada, Austrian Minister of Foreign Affairs, and two terms as UN General Secretary (1972–1981). The memoirs touch only briefly on his military service during WWII, stating that he was drafted into the Germany army in 1938 and served on the Eastern Front, where he was wounded and then dismissed from service in 1942. He alleges to have spent 1942 to 1945 studying law in Vienna.Continue reading “election : austria 1986”
election : is a new series that will post weekly from election through the united states’ presidential inauguration. in it, we will be spotlighting notable past and present election scenarios from around the world. these descriptions are intended to contextualize election : united states 2020 and to unexceptionalize the state of democracy in the united states. each post will elaborate seeming irregularities and exceptionalities that can and do take place in and around democratic electoral procedures. against blind faith in the power of institutional procedure, the aim is to illustrate the opportunistic ways that ambivalences inherent in such systems are seized and exploited.
series editors : lauren k. wolfe & zach rivers
contributors to the series:
Amrita De is a 6th year PhD candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature at SUNY Binghamton. She is an interdisciplinary scholar of South Asian literature and masculinity studies. Her dissertation explores the idea of fragility in literary articulations of postcolonial Indian masculinities across different registers such as virility, stoicism, and entrepreneurship. She recently published an article on Indian and American right-wing populisms in Boyhood Studies. She is also a creative writer and is presently working on her first novel, which also explores Indian masculinities.
Amy Obermeyer is a founding member of the Barricade Editorial Collective and a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at New York University. Her research focuses on subjectivity, gender, and race in early twentieth-century literatures of Latin America and Japan.
Lauren K. Wolfe is a translator and educator based in Brooklyn, New York. Her translations have been published by Dalkey Archive Press, MIT Press, and University of Minnesota Press. She has taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the University of Illinois Center for Translation Studies, New York University, and is currently Second Faculty at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. She is a founding Editorial Collective member of Barricade.
Mirta Juriljis a freelance translator and writer specialized in the humanities and social sciences. She lives and works in Zagreb, Croatia.
Murage Macharia is a writer based in Kerugoya, Kenya. He is passionate about psychology, literature, and technology. He is interested in exploring how storytelling can be used to dismantle the colonial debris entrenched in all colonized cultures, as well as a tool for self-awareness and empowerment. He enjoys shallow debates on pretentious philosophy, listening to music, and playing the guitar.
Santiago Ospina Celis is a writer, translator, and editor from Colombia. He is currently a PhD student in the Department of Comparative Literature at New York University.
Siarhei Biareishyk is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, working in the materialist tradition of Spinoza and Marx. His writing on Belarus has also appeared in Viewpoint Magazine, Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century, and No Borders.
Sultan Doughan is a postdoctoral fellow at Boston University. An anthropologist by training, her scholarship is at the intersection of secularism, migration, and critical race and gender studies, approached through theories of citizenship, minority rights, and memory studies and located in contemporary Europe. She conducted research in the domain of civic education in Berlin within state-funded projects to combat Islamic extremism in working class and immigrant neighborhoods. These projects operate through the frame of Holocaust memory and the figure of the Jew in Germany, targeting former Middle Eastern immigrants through a racially gendered logic to be “tolerant” secular citizens.
Yana Makuwawas raised in Harare, Zimbabwe, and moved to the United States to obtain her bachelor’s degree at Cornell University. Afterwards she worked as an assistant editor at Graywolf Press, an independent publisher of contemporary fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction, and currently takes on freelance editing and bilingual proofreading projects. She attends New York University, where she is working towards a PhD in Comparative Literature.
Yarri Kamarais a policy researcher, writer, and translator based in Burkina Faso.
Zach Riversis a PhD candidate in New York University’s Department of Comparative Literature, whose research focuses on ancient textiles, gendered labor, and inheritance. He is a founding Editorial Collective member of Barricade, and former steward for GSOC, NYU’s graduate worker union.