Local Protests: A New Status-Quo in Political Lifestyle?

 In Democracy & Governance, Governance, HomepageSlider, International & Transnational Affairs, Politics & Society, TPF Analysis

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Hong Kong and Chile convulse, Lebanon possibly spiralling into a civil strife, and sanctions induced discontent paralysing Iran, a pattern of global protests is increasingly evident. The global political landscape is currently marked by frequent mass protests, and this wave is geographically much broader and unfolding in countries at different stages of development. Unlike earlier protest movements that aimed at radical political change and revolutionising the existing order, the modern demands abandon this narrative of overthrowing the system instead aiming for democratisation of the established institutions. In other words, the anti-government protests cropping up in various parts are not trying to dismantle the democratic structures but to redefine its scope and depth.

New Wave of Protests – questioning inept governance

In contrast to the previous waves of uprising like the Pink Tide in Latin America or the Arab Spring, that was spreading in a particular region with similar agenda, the recent protests are occurring in different zones and is marked by the uniqueness of initial triggers and demands put forth by the protestors. In Lebanon, the discontent was sparked by regressive taxes proposed (mainly Whatsapp tax) but turned into massive demonstrations, transcending sects and classes, calling for a technocratic government in the backdrop of sectarian political regime, widespread corruption and mishandling of the economy. The Yellow Vest movement in France originally against the fuel tax snowballed into nationwide protests to address the socio economic inequalities, stemming from high unemployment and stagnating economy. Protests in Chile against hiked transport fares escalated to countrywide riots revealing the dissatisfaction with the pro rich growth, heavily privatised welfare system and pro market regime. On observation, these isolated protests by themselves can be a defining feature of the current wave of protests, different from the previous waves that were characterised by common contestations.

Despite being unrelated events with independent agendas, the countries undergoing mass protests share similar trends of inequality and economic downturns. Further scrutiny beyond the seemingly small initial triggers reveal an evident pattern of economic anger and insecurity in these nations. Experts have suggested that Hong Kong’s pro democracy movement is also fuelled by wide income inequality (highest among developed nations), especially in the last 45 years since its handover to the Chinese. The Latin American region, witnessing the most number of countries breaking into sustained protests, is the world’s most unequal zone. In addition to inequality, sustained unrest in states like Colombia, Catalonia to Iraq and Egypt, the protests are driven by slowing economic growth, mounting public debt and austerity measures. Even in populist and authoritarian regimes, citizens are demanding an end to corruption and restoration of democratic rule of law. For instance, long serving, extremely popular, leftist leader Evo Morales was forced to resign in Bolivia after protests erupted accusing him of undermining democracy to extent his rule. There are increasing clashes against repressive democracy in Russia, and revolts against autocrats in Slovenia and Czech Republic.

Leaderless or smart mobilization?

Interestingly, a majority of the modern protests are leaderless, led by students and youth. In Hong Kong, the protests are gaining momentum through the active involvement of the students while in Chile the unrest for systematic change was ignited after school students launched a campaign to end the 4 percent subway fare increase. Niall Ferguson noted that this demographic trend of the young leading the demonstrations is a repeat of the 1960s, which like the present had an excess of educated youth over the number of available jobs. Another similarity amongst the protests is the urban-centric mass unrest. According to migration theorists, uncontrolled urbanisation resulting in rural to urban movements is a major cause for the ongoing demonstrations. Pushed into informal settlements in cities, often ignored by authorities and without basic social coverage, the urban area becomes a ground for discontent. For instance, in Haiti the protests began due to gasoline and food scarcity. Therefore, the socio-economic marginalisation of the urban poor is a significant yet overlooked factor that drives people to the streets. This is also compounded by a lack of faith in the government. More than the poor state policies adopted and prevalent corruption, in some protesting nations, there is deep distrust among the citizens. Hong Kongers believe that their government does not have legitimate powers over Beijing, and in countries like Lebanon, Chile or Ecuador, reversal of the initial triggers did not stop the dissenters from demanding a new government.

The youth bulge and the shrinking economic opportunities only partly explains the global protests. The reach and accessibility of social media and free messaging apps have exploded in the past decade. In addition to acting as a medium to organise and sustain mass protests, these channels are also used to express political frustrations. Unlike before when media had a monopoly over mass reach, individuals and groups have the capacity to mobilise and garner support over specific issues. While the protests seem unconnected, it is possible to see a copycat element in the way protests are carried out. The coverage of news and faster reach makes it possible for protestors to adopt methods of action that were successful elsewhere. It is also harder for states to contain and repress dissenting voices. Thus, the spread of communicative technology and social platforms offer a conducive environment for protests. 

Social Media enables activism

The ability of electronic media to break down physical barriers and bring more events to global audiences might be increasing the visibility of protests, which would have otherwise remained local. Data from GEDLT Project, which has been tracking protests around the world from the past 40 years, reveals that the frequency of protests has not significantly increased. However, the intensity and the length of protests have improved. Despite a spike in these political activities wherein citizens are actively mobilising to pursue their demands, there has been a decline in the success rate of protests. A recent study highlights the staggering decline in success rate of protests from 70 percent in 1990s to 30 percent in 2010. Some highlight the “smart” methods adopted by regimes to prevent and suppress clashes like reinforcing loyalty of the elite, infiltrating and dividing the opposition, etc. For instance, in Lebanon, the initially united protests has created anti protest groups that supports the Hezbollah. Governments are also adopting a strategy of blaming foreigners and outsiders to reinforce support from the public. For instance, China is building a narrative of US backed forces disrupting Hong Kong to get an advantage in the ongoing trade war, which has strengthened after US signed a Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy law. Iran’s authorities are also blaming outsiders, especially the US, for the violence that ensued after state raising gasoline prices by 50 percent.

Overall, there is an influx in political activism. Global unrests are now spreading and have significant implications for countries everywhere. With electronic media and its potential for mobilisation, it is now easier to bring issues to national discourse. However, while the willingness and ability of mass political activism to recur and cause disruptions have increased manyfold, its success rates have decreased. It may be said that the political frustrations and the current protests will not bring a major transformation in the political structures but rather it is a new status quo in the nature of political lifestyles.  

Renuka Paul is a Research Analyst with TPF. She holds a masters in Public Policy.

Image: Aerial night shot of Beirut Downtown, Lebanon during protest against Government, Lebanese revolution – Phot by Ramzi – Licensed from www.stock.adobe.com

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