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November 3, 2019

Democracy and street protest - Part - I


November 3, 2019

Millions of people have recently taken to the streets in Lebanon, Chile, Ecuador, Hong Kong and Iraq to express their mass anger and discontent against their governments. These mass street protests have erupted against corruption, unemployment, price hike, repression and neoliberal economic policies and for democratic, political and economic rights in recent weeks.

Students, doctors, unemployed youth, political activists, workers, peasants, small traders and poor people have come out in huge numbers against economic policies of their respective governments.

In Lebanon, Prime Minister Saad Hariri has already announced his resignation. In Chile, President Sebastian Pinera has announced he will remove his cabinet and introduce reforms to tackle the worsening economic situation. In Ecuador, the government has withdrawn the drastic increase in the prices of fuel, and other austerity measures.

The Iraqi government of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi is trying to hold on to power with the use of brutal state force. Nearly 250 protesters – mainly young people – have been killed and thousands injured and arrested so far. But the lethal use of force has failed to repress the protest movement. The pressure is mounting on Iraqi prime minister to resign.

In Hong Kong, protesters forced the authorities to withdraw the extradition bill after months of mass street protests. The people have once again shown the power of mass street protests.

We can find some common features in all these mass movements – despite the many distinctions they hold. First, all these movements were organised from below-up, mainly by the youth, workers and the general public. Second, these movements started against certain economic policies and measures such as taxes, increase in transport fares, oil and fuel prices, rising cost of living, unemployment and rampant corruption.

The attempts of governments to stop these protests with brutal and excessive use of state force radicalised these movements as their numbers swelled and anger increased. The protesters targeted the neoliberal economic policies and flawed political systems. So the measures taken to appease and calm down the protesters failed to satisfy them and now they are not only demanding the resignation of governments but also radical reforms in the political and economic systems. Chile, Lebanon and Iraq are examples of that process of radicalisation. Third, the use of excessive and brutal state power proved to be counter-productive. The use of force not only provoked strong and widespread reaction but also increased support for protesters in society.

Fourth, it shows that there is a limit on how far governments can go on the road to neoliberalism and free market economic policies. There is a limit to how much the people can bear these anti- people policies. Governments might be able to implement these policies for years without much resistance but at a certain stage, mass reaction and resistance develops in societies as poverty, unemployment, inflation, inequality increase and the quality of life falls as a result of these policies of cuts and austerity.

Fifth, these movements have once again proved that mass movements of the people can cut across ethnic, sectarian, tribal, religious and gender divides as well as conflicts. Iraq and Lebanon are good examples of this. This demonstrates the ability of the masses to overcome the divisions and hatred spread by the ruling classes to divide the people during the course of mass struggle. Such mass struggles forge unity, fraternity and solidarity in society. People belonging to different nationalities, ethnicities and religious backgrounds realise in the course of the struggle that they are fighting for the same cause against a common opponent, the system and the elite.

These mass protest movements have also raised some questions in relation to forcing elected governments to resign through street protests and people’s power and the legitimacy and right of street protests in a democratic society. Some people – mainly rightwing middle-class liberal democratic intellectuals – see the rising protest movements as a threat to the democratic political order and system.

They want to limit the right of protest. For them, governments should be brought into and ousted only through elections and electoral process. They argue that governments have uncontested legal and constitutional rights to implement policies and laws. They called this the basis of an orderly society.

In this, they overlook two historical facts in their arguments. One, the right of protest and mass protest movements from below for economic, political and democratic rights pose no threat to democracy. On the contrary, this strengthens participatory democracy. Protest is essential to have more responsive democratic governance. People express their anger, dislike, discontent and opposition to a certain policy and law and also put forward their demands for action. The government can feel the mood of the general public on different policies.

Second, most of the democratic, political and economic rights won by women, workers and students are the result of mass protest movements. Women won their right to vote and other political rights – from the US to Britain – through protest movements. They were arrested, humiliated and treated like terrorists for organising protests for their rights. Workers sacrifice their lives to win the right to form unions, the eight-hour working week and other rights. They organised struggles and protests for decades and then won the rights they enjoy today.

The black population in the US fought for nearly two centuries to get equal political and economic rights.

To be continued

The writer is a freelance journalist.