© María Alejandra Mora (SoyMAM)

Towards Political Participation and Social Justice?

Tahrir, Maidan, Taksim: What do the political protests across the globe have in common and how should governments react to the instability and the civil unrest?

There has been a tendency in recent years towards an apparent increase in the spread of political protests across the world and, in some cases, political instability. However, according to the latest findings of the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index, there has been no significant improvement in the overall political-economic situation over the past two years despite often major social and political changes.

This is because the situation is nuanced and complex: regimes that include the political participation of elections can be illiberal when it comes to civil liberties or minorities, while regime change is no guarantee of progress, in fact the resulting instability or outright chaos can mean catastrophic regression in economic development and civil peace, at least in the short-term. Electoral democracy, economic prosperity, the rule of law and civil peace can exist in almost any combination. This reality is most evident in the Arab World, where instability has impeded progress in North Africa, while economic prosperity in the Gulf States is paired with continuing authoritarianism.

Even if we limit ourselves to the “emerging world,” it is difficult to generalize about the protests, which have differed in scale and ambition across countries diverse in their culture, social structure, political systems and level of development.

Rapid social change fosters civil unrest

It is also difficult to generalize about the causes of these protests. No doubt relative democratization, the spread of electoral albeit often illiberal regimes, and rising standards of living, have enabled new cultures of protest, somewhat like the protest movements in the West of the 1960s. Without detracting from legitimate local grievances, nations like Brazil, Turkey or Russia could be deemed “victims of their own success,” the move away from single-party and military dictatorships and the rise of students and middle classes have allowed for open protest movements that could not have existed in the past.

In other countries, lasting economic failure, recent financial crisis and/or unmovable autocracy are the objects of contestation. This has been the case in Tunisia and Egypt, where mass contestation has led to regime change, and it is uncertain as to what will ultimately emerge.

Perhaps the broadest generalization we can make is that all these countries are undergoing rapid social change in a world which is itself rapidly transforming. A degree of political instability is to be expected in any society facing rapid urbanization, spread of education, and changes in family structure (fertility has fallen almost everywhere), economic structure, communications (with the famous spread of Internet access), and so on.

How should the instability and popular protests of our time be met? It would be wrong to assume that increased political participation and social justice in and of themselves guarantee political stability. However, it is apparent that regimes that are responsive to public opinion and address public well-being, governments that can self-correct, are more durable and flexible in the face of protest.

Electoral mechanisms are best way to ensure long-term regime continuity

Even a legitimately elected government is not free from potentially regime-changing protest, as we can see in Ukraine and perhaps Venezuela, but as a rule electoral regimes are better equipped to channel and respond to popular frustrations. Having some electoral mechanisms is perhaps the best way to ensure long-term regime continuity. True, countries such as China and Singapore have shown that effective single party rule can be compatible with economic success and political stability, but these seem to be the exception to the rule and there is no guarantee, particularly for China, that this will endure as the country continues its rapid modernization.

Higher living standards are a second demand, even more universal and ubiquitous, which governments face. In a sense, this demand can never fully be met: citizenries always want increased purchasing power and always protest against the prospect of lower wages and reduced welfare. The economic demands are sometimes out of desperation (hunger, grinding poverty) and, in both wealthier and poorer countries, for dignity. Peoples have lived with poverty since the dawn of time, but they are less tolerant of hardship if they feel a minority of society has an unfair share, or if some live in opulence while the masses struggle to survive. “Corruption,” wherever it exists, is cause for indignation. However, every country will have a different concept of what a “fair share” is.

In any case, this is an area in which governments have substantial room for improvement. Wealth concentration and inequality in the emerging world – including all of the famous BRICS countries – are staggering relative to Western countries or Japan. In emerging countries, the pie is not only smaller than in developed countries, but working and middle classes get a much smaller slice of it.

In most of the emerging world, citizens have enjoyed rising standards of living and consumption, even though inequality has also increased. This is the case notably in China and Russia. Countries like Turkey, Brazil and Venezuela, where inequality has fallen somewhat from very high levels, are the exception. The flip side of this inequality is that there is substantial wealth which could be distributed to the working and middle classes should growth slow down or a major economic crisis occur. Addressing the fundamental demand of economic security can also help to maintain political stability, shown notably by the contribution economic hardship made to political radicalism in the 1930s in Germany and Japan.

Protests have been as varied as the countries that make up the world. But political participation and social justice are likely to remain important cross-cutting themes which regimes have an interest in addressing in order to guarantee their own stability. An electoral regime spreads responsibility across different political actors, meaning they might not all be discredited at once, allows self-criticism, self-correction, and for popular concerns to be vented. In addition, both out of material necessity and a less tangible sense of dignity, there will be demands that the fruits of the economy benefit society as a whole.

Craig James Willy is an EU affairs writer and a journalist with the German Press Agency (DPA). He has notably written political analysis for the Bertelsmann Stiftung and media analysis for the European Commission. His French-English blog is available here.

Related BTI

Study: BTI 2014 Report
Political Management in International Comparison



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