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18 July 2013, Gateway House

Protests in democracies – patterns and problems

Elections are meant to be a suitable recourse in democracies if citizens feel that the government does not represent them. However, the recent protests in Brazil, Turkey and India show that people feel political classes are too far removed from their every day realities to address their grievances

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Protests against authoritarian regimes as in Tunisia or Egypt a year ago are one thing, but massive demonstrations on the streets of Cairo, Sao Paulo, Ankara, New York or Delhi recently, are another. The venting of long suppressed rage in the former was variously described as ‘Arab Awakening’ or ‘Arab Spring’ with all the positive connotations that these words evoked. With the latter, the protests were viewed as noisy democracies of various shades – including the infant democracy under Morsi in Egypt. However, with channels for free expression and dissent available to their citizens, there is less clarity as to what the recent protests represent. Is there a trend, or is each one sui generis and their frequency a mere happenstance?

In theory, citizens’ protests in democracies are signs of grievances and are perfectly legitimate. If strong or persistent, such protests may alert the political class that attention needs to be paid to this or that grievance: inflation, unemployment, minority rights, alienation of a caste/class, and possibly induce some course correction. By the very nature of democracies, they are not meant to coerce the government or to speak of overthrowing it. If that is the intention, elections are the available option. Governments are after all supposed to reflect the will of the majority. Other channels are also available to address complaints: parliament, courts, commissions, tribunals, and media. But, all this is in theory.

So are there new patterns in the protests that we are seeing?

To start with, in all of the protests in well established democracies seen recently, the grievances are diffuse rather than specific. Occupy Wall Street in the U.S. was the most nebulous with the complaints centring around the privileged 1% cornering all the riches and benefits to the detriment of the rest of the 99%. The very real problems are a result of structural imbalances in the U.S. economy. Corporations are making huge profits, but are not creating new jobs. Financial honchos earn obscene profits, but those in manufacturing or blue collar jobs get squeezed;  the ‘innovator whiz kids’ in technology and finance rule the universe, but those with hard earned college degrees struggle. The problems are all real, but they elude definition and do not speak of resolution. It is not a surprise that the ‘occupation movement’ petered out after a while. It signalled a problem, but led to no solutions.

The Brazilian protests have some similarities in terms of multiple complaints – price rise, lack of quality in public services such as education and health. They are also against corruption in high places and a privileged elite enthusing in mega projects such as hosting the FIFA World Cup and Olympics, thereby showing a lack of sensitivity to middle-class frustrations. Similarly, in India, the Anna Hazare and Kejriwal movement started with a seemingly specific demand about the Lokayukta. But, it too lacked a definitive focus, developed a divisive agenda and became incapable of accepting realistic solutions. In Turkey, led by a more authoritarian figure compared to other cases, the ostensible reason was the plan to convert a public park into a shopping plaza and a tourist attraction. The act of protest itself was more significant than the proximate cause. Again at the end of it, the result was a dent in Prime Minister Erdoğan’s image, but without a real change on the ground. Different triggers then, but some broad similarities in brewing discontent.

Second, all these movements have a predominantly urban character, as also a youth and a middle class constituency. It is possible that traditional categories such as farmers, workers and even minorities are attuned to the political and the electoral process, but the urban constituents of these protests are more impatient and cynical. They have no faith in the conventional politics and are searching for an alternative process for their voices to weigh, without being clear as to what it might be. Third, given the character of the protests as described, the social media avenues such as Facebook and Twitter are used as clarion calls for assembly. This is likely to be an irreversible feature replacing the pamphlets and the posters of yesteryears. The instruments to mobilise the classes, if not the masses, are now out of the control of most governments except the most repressive. Fourth, in the age of the global village, there is universalisation as it were of the traits and norms of the protest culture. Those inclined to shout are also compelled to tweet.

The recent bout of protests in Egypt, shares these features, but is a different and troublesome case in theory and in practice. The nature of the protests against a democratically elected President – Morsi of Muslim Brotherhood – may have been inchoate, predominantly urban and spread by social media. But, its objective was more than airing dissatisfaction. Its intent was to unseat the elected government. Whether the protests alone would have achieved that objective is doubtful, but in a country without any tradition of  democratic politics at all, it gave the justification for the army to step in, using the doctrine of ‘necessity’ that we have seen in our neighbourhood so often. The issues raised by Egyptian protests and their effect of ‘regime change’ are weighty and many. Should a government enjoying an electorally proven majority in terms of popular support, but incapable of broadening its base be overthrown by noisy demonstrations thereby creating chaos. In such a situation are the armed forces the arbiter; can an elected regime with a commitment to  ‘political Islam’ be democratic in spirit and practice or is there a fundamental incompatibility between liberal democracy and politics run under Islamic principles; how should the other democracies view this development? These and other questions related to Egypt will be debated without any clear answers for years to come. For now, it will be prudent to suspend judgments on Arab protests and not club them with those in established democracies.

Turning back to cases of India, Brazil and Turkey – all  three with the alluring label of ’emerging powers’, there is an underlying sense that despite the ‘progressive’ discourse,   the powerful classes are enriching themselves and taking the silent middle classes for a ride. Dissertations are yet to be written analysing the sociological base of the protestors in each country, but a unifying theme is the feeling that elections alone are not enough. The protestors believe that the political classes, their representatives in theory, are too far removed from their every day reality and are addicted to quantitative attributes – GDP, rates of growth, world rankings, millions out of poverty, enlargement of the middle class etc. The protestors are impatient with such parameters of progress. Their concerns seem to be with the qualitative aspects of governance as in the quality of education, public hospitals, or with corruption in high places.

Will these protests change the reality? Not necessarily. It is more likely that they may change our middle class notions on the efficacy of democracies. Brazil’s case is instructive. Led by a progressive leader who herself was a fire-brand protestor in her youth, also known for her steadfast anti-corruption stance, President Dilma Rouseff did respond relatively promptly. She wanted a referendum to enact laws to end the culture of impunity that has protected Brazilian politicians till now, bring in foreign doctors in large numbers to fill the hospitals (as Brazil may not have the numbers), and use the future massive oil revenues for better education and health. Each of these approaches has run into problems. The referendum idea has been blocked by the legislature, the proposal to bring in doctors from Cuba opposed by Brazilian doctors and so on. All her ideas are promises so far, but her credibility has received a dent, though she is at least listening. Brazil will no doubt host its mega sports events, but it remains to be seen whether for ordinary citizens, such events will be occasions for flag waiving pride or for a sense of outrage – as it was for us with the Commonwealth Games.

We are living in an age of heightened aspirations across all the classes, the traditional poor, the middle class and the elite. More avenues are available than ever before to air our expectations and to vent to our frustrations. But the realities on the ground are slower to change even when there is good intention and competent governance, not the case, in our countries. Seething democracies on periodic boil are a phenomenon we are likely to see more and more.

B. S. Prakash is a former Ambassador to Brazil, a visiting Professor at Jamia Milia University and a regular contributor to Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. An abridged version of this article appeared in Deccan Herald, here.

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