Something is going on. From Baghdad to Hong Kong, Santiago to Barcelona, cities around the world have seen major protests over recent weeks.
Some of these protests have already earned comparisons to the “Arab Spring” that rocked the Middle East from the end of 2010. But at the same time, they are far broader in geographic range, with countries in Latin America, Europe and Asia also seeing protests.
In a number of these cities, there have been deaths: at least 165 people were killed in the latest round of protests in the Iraqi capital, which resumed this week. Global protests are also causing unease among financial investors, adding to uncertainty about the health of the global economy.
No two cases are exactly alike. Protests in Hong Kong, for example, were sparked by the local government saying it would allow extraditions to mainland China, while in Lebanon a proposed tax on calls on the messaging service WhatsApp prompted people to take to the streets.
But there are also some startling similarities between some of the protests, which all share themes of economic anger and political hopelessness:
Effect of seemingly small factors
Lebanon isn’t the only country where a single, isolated change sparked protests.
Demonstrations began in Ecuador this month when the government scrapped a decades-old fuel subsidies. In Chile, it was a hike in prices on the subway that lead to violence this month, while the price of onions lead to protests in India shortly before.
In almost every case, protests soon turned into something far broader. Backtracking on the changes has stopped protests in some countries, but in many they continue: In Chile, protests continued last weekend even after the president cancelled the planned fare increase.
Inequality is causing real pain
Income inequality seems to have added an economic insecurity that helped lead to anger and protests.
Lebanon, where the WhatsApp tax caused huge protests, is one of the world’s most unequal economies, with the richest 1 per cent claiming 25 per cent of the total national income between 2005 and 2014.
Chile, in many ways a more stable and prosperous country than many of its neighbours, has the highest level of post-tax income inequality among members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, some of the wealthiest nations in the world.
Skewed demographics also make things worse. In Iraq, there has been anger that a whole generation has little economic prospects.
Deep economic problems
Income inequality is hardly the only economic factor that many of the countries seeing protests are facing. In particular, slowing economic growth and increasing government debt are pushing policymaking to the brink and leading to fears about the future.
Last week, the International Monetary Fund warned that global economic growth would be just 3 per cent this year, rather than the 3.2 per cent it had predicted in July. If accurate, this will be the slowest growth rate since the last financial crisis.
Many nations borrowed big in the boom times only to find themselves now facing calls from creditors. Lebanon is a particularly extreme situation, where a debt to GDP ratio of 155 per cent makes it the third most indebted country in the world.
Little faith in government response
Crucially, for many protesters, the issue isn’t just government policies: It’s the government themselves.
In Barcelona and Hong Kong, anger over government legitimacy goes far beyond corruption. Hong Kongers involved in the protests in the Asian megacity no longer believe that their local government is able to stand up to Beijing; in Barcelona, last week’s protests were the latest were prompted by the jailed in Catalan separatist leaders.
These broader questions of legitimacy help explain why so many protests don’t end when the initial problem that lead protesters to the street has been reversed. Hong Kong suspended the plans for a new extradition law in September; similar policy reversals are yet to stop protests in Lebanon, Ecuador or Chile.
So far, these broad range of protests haven’t actually brought down a government, though in some places they are coming close. The cost, in terms of not only economic loss, but also bloodshed, could still rise exponentially.
— Washington Post
Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs.