Global Protests and Democracy

When in the early 1970s the first social movements, women’s Lib and Environmental Groups, raised public consciousness, reigning politicians, from the Left to the Right, denounced them as upper middle-class fringe groups, who lacked legitimacy (which only the political parties had). In Austria, social partners, the compulsory Chambers (labor, business, agriculture) plus their voluntary partners, the Industrialists’ Association and the Labor Union Congress, also did not take them seriously, because in their mind, they themselves represented not only all Austrians, but also any economic, social, political and environmental concern. So far, so bad.

When in later decades mainstream political parties started to incorporate some of the social movements’ agendas, because more and more people had organized themselves in extra-parliamentary groups, it still remained a top-down process whereby party meetings behind closed doors designed election manifestos, thereby hoping to attract these “unconventional“. This was partly successful, but did not prevent new parties of Green and Liberal leanings to enter parliament. Still, the political processes remained the same. As traditional party affiliations weakened, newcomers were brought into the mainstream parties (with often hilarious effects, if they had not played a part in sowing the seeds of distrust of citizens in the political process). Later, European political parties started to think about introducing more “direct democracy” elements into their election processes, permitting split voting, preference votes, etc, and to start thinking about more plebiscites, referenda and whether the results should be made more binding.

Today, during the ongoing crisis, but also beyond, we have the wider and wider spreading phenomenon of (mainly) youth revolts and demonstrations. More and more they are directed not only against an individual project (Gezi Park in Turkey, expensive Football events in Brazil), but against “the system” which leaves more and more of them behind: the best known are the revolts during the “Arab Spring” in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, but there are many others in China, in Myanmar, in Vietnam, in Korea, in Slovenia, in Bulgaria, Albania, and many other countries. They show the deepseated distrust which people have in their politicians, in the way they are handling the crisis (Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy), with corruption (Czech Republic, Bulgaria), with the enrichment of the few at the expense of the many (Kazakhstan, China), finally with the political process and its results in general. For a long time, this type of revolt “against the system” was, apart form the 1968 movement, the prerogative of extreme rightwing parties (Austria, France, Greece, Belgium) which had xenophobic and racist roots (“it is the fault of the foreigners, the US East Coast, the Freemansons, etc”). But today, this distrust of the “system”, of the reigning politicians, has spread to the whole political spectrum.

Many of these protests are directed against real conditions in the countries: increasing poverty, unemployment, hoplessness, lack of access to basic services, dictatorships. But many of them go beyond, and have their roots in the insufficient capacity to influence the political processes, to become engaged and involved in politics. While mainstream parties (and party leaders a la Erdogan) point to democratic elections as the locus of political participation by the voters, an increasing number of people want more involvement, more participation, more co-determination, and this regularly, not just during national elections. Parliamentary democracy, as we know it in Europe, might have reached a turning point: the richer and the more diversified societies have become, and the farther away political decisions are made (for instance, in the EU), the more citizens feel alienated from the process and the less they know about how these decisions are made. The Swiss Model, with its relatively frequent (and binding) referenda, may be able to solve some of these problems, but also many Swiss think that in spite of their referenda, the “uppers” still do what they want, in opaque, not citizen-friendly processes, and prevent active participation of citizens, both in the decision preparation, the decision making and the implementation.

The crisis and the ever more uneven distribution of wealth and income have exacerbated the distrust of the citizens. The transfer of vast sums of citizens’ tax money to the financial sector (which before the crisis already made excessive profits by exploit the rest of the economy and whose excesses caused the crisis), while at the same time social programs are cut and the livelihood of ordinary citizens jeopardized, has only been the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Street protests, non-violent and violent, all over the world should really wake politicians into action: they can no longer be taken lightly, the demonstrators be denounced as troublemakers, terrorists, foreign agents! They are real signs of massive disenchantment with the political process and its outcomes. Thus, it is a question of the substance, the content of politics, as well as one of process. People demand a much larger say in how their lives are being affected, which would lead to different policies and results. So far, during the past 30 years, the economists with their neo-liberal dogma, where markets and the self-interests of entrepreneurs make us achieve paradise, have been the dominant force. This has led us not only into the deepest economic and financial crisis of the past 80 years, but has also triggered a deep political crisis. We do not need to re-establish the “confidence of the financial markets” into our nations’ politics, as we are so frequently told. We all need to re-establish trust in the political process, at the peril that our societies will fall apart.


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