Democracy has never been so popular. The Arab summer saw dictatorships overthrown and replaced with democratic intentions while in Africa the percentage of democratic countries has increased from 7% in 1990 to nearly 40% last year. The two giants in South America; Brazil and Argentina, have even managed to elect female leaders, something the USA has still yet to achieve. In the world as a whole, democracies roughly account for 60% of the world’s 196 countries, nearly doubling in the last two decades.
So the public should be happy right?
Wrong. The definition of a democracy is vague and the differences between elections in one continent to the next can be staggering. Some “democratic” countries are rather misleading as well; for example Hugo Chavez won consecutive elections, but was an autocratic dictator in all but name, widely considered to have rigged elections and bought votes. Russia as well holds elections, but the chances of President Putin losing an election are slim to none, with the Kremlin wielding a tight fist over the polling system. That lowers the level of truly democratic countries to a less impressive 25% according to some statistics.
The Financial Times graph shows the election results that awarded the presidency to Vladimir Putin were controversial to say the least.
Even those countries are now facing troubles. The global recession sprouted protest movements like “Occupy Wall Street” and started a trend that has culminated in the widespread trouble many countries are now experiencing. Brazil angered their people by overspending on the world cup, which has vastly trumped the costs for the South African World Cup, while neglecting the public services that will be so key to the a successful tournament. Turkey’s suppressive leader, Prime Minister Erdogan, has pushed his people too far, putting into law tight rules on alcohol and arresting journalists at a higher rate than that of China. Egypt meanwhile democratically elected the Muslim Brotherhoods front man Mohammed Morsi, who promptly handed himself dictator like powers and refused to listen to the secular opposition.
The world cup stadiums have come at too high a cost for most Brazilians, when the quality of living is nowhere near to that of the stadiums.
In the last two examples there can be seen a link, with both the Turkish and Egyptian leaders exploiting the lack of important institutions and constitutions to grant themselves greater control of the country. Winning majorities in the elections seemed to suggest a remit to do as they liked, without consulting the public, especially the percentage that didn’t vote for them. It’s not a coincidence that Brazil has seen the least hostile protests, with President Dilma Rousseff agreeing with the public’s right to peaceful protests (while quite rightly criticizing the small minority that turned violent).
Yet even the Western countries with stable democracies have seen unrest. Southern Europeans have become frustrated with the levels of austerity being enforced upon them by Brussels and Berlin. Greece has been the main recipient, but even the likes of France are starting to feel the tension, with the approval rating of President Hollande diving to a lowly 24%. Britain suffered more in 2011, when riots in London spread across the country and caused national panic. Though the origin was most likely the austerity the coalition was embracing to cut Britain’s large budget deficit, racial tensions were a common thread, with the London Met still dominated by the white British (around 80%) in a city where that is now considered a minority.
The British riots caused major panic, as some feared the country was spiraling out of control.
The USA however managed to largely bypass these protests, mainly by keeping up their spending levels and kicking the austerity can down the road. Only this year has Barack Obama actually looked to cut down the trillion dollar deficit he had been running consecutively in his first term, with the automatic sequester cutting budgets by $85 billion in 2013. Yet democracy hasn’t looked too rosy for the USA either. The deadlock between the president and congress has become a serious problem, with a polarised government failing to put policies through. A small tightening of the gun laws this year was rejected by the republican dominated congress mostly out of spite, while a recent farming bill (consisting of subsidies for farmers and food stamps) was rejected for the second year running despite holding policies both sides have traditionally liked. Even worse, both sides nearly forced each other to walk off the fiscal cliff at the start of the year, with the president reluctant to cut spending and the congress incessant on not raising taxes. Luckily both sides managed to reach a bipartisan agreement, though if anything this has emboldened both parties beliefs that their way is the only way.
The inability to agree with the more popular President Obama has seen Congress’s approval rating fall sharply to record lows.
In the last 5 years democracy has taken a bashing, that much is easy to see. For every success like Myanmar, there is a monumental failure like Syria to counter balance it. Yet, many countries still strive for the democracy that the west has enfamed. Giving the public the ability to choose its leaders is a right many in the west take for granted, but something many societies go without. The protests are simply another form of democracy, giving a voice to a cause that the government might be ignoring or missing. In the three biggest protests right now, you can rank Brazil as the most democratic and Egypt as the least. Egypt could have stopped the protests that started last year by listening to the public and engaging them, rather than trying to stamp them down. Turkey started off in a similar vein, but has now tried negotiating with the protesters, especially with the Kurds, who threatened to take the protests to another scale. Brazil however, have largely allowed the protests to take place, and allowing for some violent episodes have seen the least chaos. The government is also opening up a dialogue with the protesters, agreeing to some of their demands for increased funding to the public services. The country still has a long way to go, and could have foreseen the public out roar that was building, but have so far acted in the most democratic fashion.
The protests might be shocking to see, but they are easily trumped by the actions of say the Chinese government in Tiananmen Square, or the conditions of the North Korean people who are denied any access to the outside world. Such dictatorship allows for such short term protests to be stamped down on quickly, but encourages longer term distrust and anger toward the controlling governments. The answer for the countries facing public unrest is for more democracy not less. Allowing the public to voice its frustrations can let off steam and negate anger building up and people acting out in frustration. In the USA’s situation, more democratic bipartisan talks between the two parties would result in much higher success rate for important policies. The immigration reform coming through shows signs of this much needed bipartisan agreement, but party politics could still derail negotiations.
It must be remembered that there are much worse scenario’s than the current protests hitting democracy.
As Winston Churchill famously said “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried”.