The world isn’t fair. But that’s not new; what’s new is the speed and intensity with which popular fury at this unfairness is boiling over into sustained political protests. In the last few months, protests have gripped rich and poor countries alike, strong democracies and strong repressive regimes, too.
At the heart of this anger is the widespread perception that policymakers are acting in the interests of elites rather than the people. Protests feature regularly in developing countries, and for good reason; their populations suffer acutely when governments fail to provide basic services, and the lack of developed political institutions means that non-traditional actors – protestors very much among them – tend to move the political needle.
In the last few weeks, Egypt has seen its biggest protests since the Arab Spring, prompted by allegation of corruption by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and the military, and further exacerbated by economic reforms that have resulted in lower subsidies and higher taxes for the country’s poorest. In Lebanon, a “whatsapp tax” on online communications prompted protests that became quickly engulfed by broader economic and political concerns, ultimately forcing Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri to resign. Iraq’s president Adel Abdul Mahdi hasn’t fared much better than the Lebanese PM, and his country has been gripped by protests by people exhausted by high unemployment and lackluster public services. In Ecuador, the decision of president Lenin Moreno to scrap long-standing fuel-subsidies powered weeks-long protests on a range of social issues that ultimately led him to reverse his decision, a victory for the country’s protestors but a loss for the country’s fiscal discipline.
Historically, protests have tended to be less effective in wealthier countries – both because politics are more entrenched and likely to have been already captured by special interests, and because wealthier populations have the luxury of waiting for the next election cycle to register their political dissatisfaction at the polls.
Increasingly though, voting booths are no longer capable of acting as political release valves.
In Chile, Sebastian Pinera’s three percent hike in metro tickets kicked off protests in one of Latin America’s wealthiest and most stable countries, as people came out to protest low pension and the high costs of basic services like utilities and medicine (some even set fire to the streets), only to be enraged further by the decision to deploy the military in a country with a history of military dictatorship. The Gilets Jaunes movements in France brought Paris to a near-still almost a year ago, and while the movement has largely petered out, upcoming pension reform and the anniversary effect risk reigniting the movement. In Spain, the recent decision by the country’s Supreme Court to hand down long jail sentences to Catalonia leaders who spearheaded the 2017 independence referendum and secessionist push touched off massive protests, complicating upcoming elections this weekend which already were looking unlikely to produce a clear winner.
Meanwhile on the other side of the world, Hong Kong protests continue to roll on into their 22nd week, flummoxing one of the world’s most significant economic power centers. Yet of all these protests, it’s those in Hong Kong that seem to pose the least threat to their respective government (albeit indirectly) in Beijing, which has the luxury of simply waiting out the protestors. Which raises the critical question: in our day of widespread grievance and political frustration, is democracy still the best form of government going forward? Democracy has thrived in recent decades as more and more people began contributing to their country’s economic productivity (one of globalization’s most important byproducts), making it easier for them to get a larger say in politics. But now globalization is retreating and technology has begun displacing labor and will continue to do so for years to come.
It’s a question worth tracking, though it’s too early to say that democracy’s best days are behind it; globalization has been far too successful to write it off completely. But when you combine all these structural problems with a global economy that’s slowing down, it makes it even harder for governments to address the legitimate concerns of their people going forward. If there is one thing that unites the world in 2019, it’s anger at governments – that should worry both governments and the people that are raging against them.
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Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media and author of Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism.
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