The key theme at this year’s World Economic Forum meeting has been responsible and responsive international leadership, focusing on how best to address the “growing frustration and discontent increasing in segments of society that are not experiencing economic development and social progress”. Reflecting this, Chinese President Xi Jinping gave a robust defence of economic globalisation in the opening plenary at a time when its virtues are being increasingly questioned across much of the world.
2016 is widely seen as underlining this anguish with a growing anti-establishment, anti-globalisation mood in many countries — to the alarm of the political and business communities at Davos. Cases in point last year included the rejection of Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s constitutional referendum, the election of Donald Trump as US president, and the United Kingdom voting to leave the EU.
However, while 2016 now seems a potentially defining historic moment to some, the fact is that unusually high political turbulence has actually been a feature of politics for much of the last decade — at least since the international financial crisis commenced in 2008-09. For instance, many governments in the industrialised world have been voted out of office, in part, because of economic downturn and/or austerity measures.
In Europe alone, millions have taken to the streets and administrations in more than half of the 27 EU states fell or were voted out of office from Spring 2010 to 2012 alone. Within the core Eurozone, 11 of 14 governments collapsed or lost elections during that same two years.
Another notable feature of protest in the developed world has been the so-called ‘Occupy movement’ which came to international prominence in Wall Street in 2011 in its campaign against social and economic inequality. The occupy demonstrations spread to around 1,000 cities and over 80 countries in all continents of the world from Canada to Norway to New Zealand.
This is, however, just one feature of a range of exceptional economic and political fragility and uncertainty across the world in the last decade. For there have also been eye-catching political revolutions, popular uprisings and protests in emerging markets too.
This includes the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ which began in Tunisia some six years ago and subsequently spread to include revolutionary changes of power in Egypt and Libya; transfer of power in Yemen; plus demonstrations and uprisings in countries as disparate as Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco and Oman.
There was also the Ukrainian revolution of 2014, which resulted in the ousting of pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych; the Brazilian demonstrations of 2013, the largest in the country for some two decades; and the 2011 Azerbaijani protests against the government.
This disparate range of political disruption across the world has reportedly been described as “a revolutionary wave, like 1848” by Sir Nigel Inkster, former director of operations for the UK Secret Intelligence Service. Others have compared the situation to 1914, 1968 and 1989.
Whatever the validity of these historical analogies, however, it is clear that there are some genuinely new factors to the post-2008 period, including the role of social media and other technologies. Moreover, this so-called “wave” of political instability has diverse origins with economic issues not the only driver.
Thus, unrest in the Arab world has often stemmed from deep-seated political and socio-economic discontent that pre-dates the financial crisis. Post-2008, however, factors including liquidity crunches, increased food prices, and unemployment spikes, have exacerbated these longer-standing grievances.
In Europe, the role of economic downturn and austerity has been central to unrest in numerous countries, especially those most impacted by the Eurozone crisis. Even here though, unrest has tapped into pre-existing disquiet with established political parties, hence the meteoric rise of new groups like Syriza in Greece.
Going forward, a key question is whether overall political instability will now tail off, especially if economic growth accelerates and sustains itself in much of the world in coming years. While this is possible, there are at least three sets of factors that will continue to fuel protest in some countries.
Firstly, economic inequality has grown in many countries, and becoming increasingly politically salient. This was underlined by Trump’s victory where he tapped into popular anger, especially from discontented working class voters angry on multiple fronts, including with increases in income inequality since 1980.
Secondly, even if the worst of the financial crisis has now passed, its consequences endure, especially for the young. People aged 15-24 constitute less than 20 per cent of the global population, but approximately double the percentage of the unemployed. This puts many at risk of long-term damage to earnings potential and job prospects, fuelling discontent.
Youth unemployment in numerous countries in the Arab world is above 50 per cent. In the Middle East, the problem is acute because it has the world’s biggest youth bulge comprised of increasingly educated people.
Moreover, more than five million people in the EU aged 15-24 are unable to find work (around 20 per cent) as career opportunity structures have been swept away for too many. This has given rise to concern, including from German Chancellor Angela Merkel about a “lost generation”, especially in Greece and Spain where youth unemployment has been over 50 per cent.
Thirdly, there are drivers, unrelated to the financial crisis, that have been common to much political unrest, that will endure. This includes the disruptive role of social media.
There remains debate about how instrumental social media has been in fomenting political instability. However, whether one sees it as an essential component that translated discontent into concrete action, or accentuated what was already-inevitable, indisputably it has played an enabling, mobilising role that may only grow as technology advances and proliferates.
Taken overall, there remains significant prospect of political unrest across the world in 2017 and beyond. While circumstances will vary from country to country, instability will potentially be fuelled not just by economic inequality and legacy of the financial crisis such as higher youth unemployment, but also longer-standing political and socio-economic discontent which social media is giving fresh impetus to.
Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS (the Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy) at the London School of Economics