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 – protesters very much among them – tend to move the political needle.
In recent weeks, Egypt has seen its biggest protests since the Arab Spring, prompted by allegations 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 subsides powered weeks-long protests on a range of social issues that ultimately led him to reverse his decision, a victory for the country’s protesters 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 3 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 pensions and the high costs of basic services like utilities and medicine (some even lit fires in 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 in France brought Paris to a near standstill a year ago, and while the movement has largely petered out, upcoming pension reform and the anniversary effect risk reigniting it. 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.
Meanwhile on the other side of the world, the Hong Kong protests continue to roll on, 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 protesters.
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 by-products), 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.
Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media and author of “Us vs Them: The Failure of Globalism.” His Twitter handle is @ianbremmer and he is on Facebook as Ian Bremmer.