June 27, 2013 7:01 pm
In Istanbul, the protesters want green space and the right to enjoy a glass of wine. In São Paulo, the demand on the streets is for decent public transport and a crackdown on police corruption.
The placards may be different, but the forces at work in these recent disturbances have been much the same. Politics in the rising world has been left behind by the tumultuous pace of economic and social change. The stresses are not about to go away any time soon. Welcome to the age of unrest.
At a glance, there was little to unite the demonstrators in Istanbul and Ankara with the angry crowds in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The former channelled anger at an authoritarian, albeit elected, prime minister who has challenged secular freedoms. The Islamism of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development party (AKP) collides with the social liberalism of an urban middle class.
The catalyst for the flash protests in Brazil was a rise in bus fares – and the contrast it pointed up between failing services for Brazilians and the vast sums expended on the football World Cup and Olympics.
Missing, too, has been an obvious read-across from these nations to uprisings against autocrats in the Arab world or challenges to regimes such as those in China or Russia. Turkey and Brazil are democracies. Until recently, the former has been held as a role model for the Arab world – a lesson in how to meld pluralism and economic vibrancy with Islam.
After a century of promise unfulfilled, Brazil has crossed the line between potential and actual power. Between the two nations, tens of millions have been lifted from poverty.
What unites the protests, however, is the challenge to political systems in the rising world – democratic as well as authoritarian – when confronted by economic and social change. It has all happened too fast.
In the west, the stresses and strains of the industrial revolution were spread out over a century. Politics had time to adjust to the demands of a burgeoning bourgeoisie and a more assertive working class. Even then, there were uprisings, revolutions and wars along the way.
Today’s emerging powers have seen extraordinary advances collapsed into a couple of decades. Hundreds of millions of people once locked out of politics have been enfranchised by economic growth, urbanisation and digital technology. Instant communication – from text messages to social media – have handed the educated, and often unemployed, young a powerful tool to mobilise discontent.
Democracy will not grant politicians immunity from unrest. The pressure from the streets will probably be stronger in authoritarian states – it is remarkable how almost any protest anywhere intensifies the fearfulness of Beijing. But one of the striking things about the protests in Turkey and Brazil has been their detachment from familiar political dividing lines.
The protesters have been challenging the system – political elites, corrupt public servants, rich business leaders – rather than carrying a flag for traditional opposition parties.
The common denominators here are growing middle classes, young populations, overcrowded urban sprawl, poor public services, unemployment, huge income inequalities and widespread corruption.
The ingredients in this combustible mix are present in different proportions from country to country and continent to continent. But they are there in some combination from Cairo to Beijing and Jakarta to Buenos Aires. So too is the instant digital communication that can make a firestorm of a spark.
There are no easy answers for governments seeking to avoid such protests. Authoritarian regimes, most notably China, have traditionally seen growth as the answer. They are mistaken. For one thing, as we have seen in recent months, rising states are not immune to global economic cycles.
Growth in the south and east is slowing. But material prosperity was always an inadequate answer.
Rising affluence in these nations increases more often than it deflects the social and political pressures. The higher people climb above the poverty line, the more they resent corruption and inequality and demand better public provision. The rule of law matters for the middle classes in a way it does not for those locked out of politics by poverty.
Nor, as Mr Erdogan should have learnt by now, is repression the answer. The protests that began in Istanbul’s Gezi Park and Taksim Square might well have been contained had the police not responded with violence and the prime minister with a series of unhinged theories and threats about grand conspiracies. Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s president, seems to have at least partially understood this lesson by recognising the protesters had a case.
Most likely, though, there will be many more such disturbances across the rising world. On present trends, the ranks of the global middle class will swell by about another 1bn to about 3bn by 2020.
The one thing we can be sure of is that these citizens, newly enfranchised by higher living standards, will be more demanding of their rulers. Governments everywhere will have to find ways to accommodate them.
The world’s new powers have a bumpy road ahead of them. The political leaders most likely to ride out the protests will be those who fill the governance gap by cracking down on corruption, mitigating the excesses of inequality, and responding to demands for modern public services. Even then, the lesson of history is that progress is unlikely to be smooth. Anyone who thinks otherwise would do well to brush up on the 1840s.