Farmers protest Delhi India
Indian farmers stage a massive protest against Farm bills at Singhu Border in New Delhi Image Credit: ANI

Human beings sometimes like to travel in herds, but thankfully they are not sheep. Throughout history, they have protested about the things they loathed. Otherwise, conformity in a society can also produce alarming outcomes. Without protests, legal legitimacy behind slavery, apartheid, and untouchability could have continued forever.

The world in recent years has witnessed an increasing number of protests in many countries, which are not only longer in duration and more extensive in mobilisation but also becoming global in receiving open support from organisations and activists.

The street opposition in Chile, Sudan, and Hong Kong in 2019 and the United States and India in 2020 became global in many ways. Many people worldwide protested in their countries in solidarity, and several political and cultural leaders spoke out, favouring the protesters’ cause.

Protesters used the international media, including social media, to spread the legitimacy of their demand, and the modern communication system and globalisation of activism blurred the contours of territorial boundaries.

Protests have never been necessarily limited to remain as an internal issue only. History has seen many protests originating in different corners of the world taking the global stage.

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Protests against colonialism or imperialism in any country had always received outside support and influence. However, the modern and affordable communication system and interconnected global media have globalised the protests to an extent the world had not witnessed before.

Protesting groups taking the better communication advantage have been establishing transnational connections. Issue-based international networks are in plenty to provide financial, tactical, and moral support to protests anywhere in the world in support of their cause.

Any protest concerning democracy, human rights, climate change, race, or gender issues immediately becomes international thanks to very active global networks. The disadvantage of a protesting group’s smallness is often being overcome through flexible coordination and smart networking.

Though the protests are becoming larger and transnational more than before, the better and broader mobilisation is not necessarily making them successful in getting their demands.

Larger protests and global network pressure are not sure recipes for success in a non-democratic political setting. Countries that are more susceptible to globalised protests at home are those that aspire to belong to a normative community of nations. Unfortunately, while the world is, on the one hand, witnessing bigger and better protests, on the other, it is also going through a rapid downward slide from democracy to authoritarianism.

People’s protest is a vital barometer of the quality of the relationship that exists between the state and society as the type of political system in a country sharply affects the nature and outcome of the protest. Democracies are likely to experience more extensive but less deadly protests than autocracies.

The structure and ethos of democratic regimes are such that they are adjusted to respond to limited challengers in a conciliatory way, reinforcing the utility of protest over rebellion.

Democratic regimes often refrain from using the full strength of their coercive power against the protesting population, as protests, unlike rebellion, do not challenge the state’s existence. The protest is usually an expression of opposition to a particular government agency or a parliamentary process.

In a democracy, protest provides an essential channel through which ordinary citizens can participate in the decision-making and direct the political process. The protest is a fundamental democratic right, and without it, a democracy reduces to become an elected authoritarian system.

Mobilising and organising people

Democracies provide no immediate obstacles to mobilising and organising people on specific issues as liberty to do so is guaranteed by the constitution and tradition. The leaders in democracies accept international support groups and activists’ engagement in their country’s domestic protests as a ‘necessary evil’ for operating within a democratic set-up.

Moreover, due to their values and dependence on popular support, democratic regimes mostly respond favourably or adopt a compromising position to the protesting population’s demands.

Unfortunately, for the last 15 years, the liberal democracies worldwide have suffered terribly in holding on to their democratic values and ideals. The rise of populism has clouded the world. Not only the young and poor democracies in the developing world but also rich and powerful democracies have come under the spells of charismatic rogue leaders.

Many established democracies have become flawed and transforming into a hybrid system where elections are being used to legitimise ethno-nationalist authoritarianism.

In this seriously flawed system of democratic authoritarian fusion, people have the right to protest. Still, the regime sees the protest as a threat to its power and legitimacy.

It does everything to suppress or vilify the protesting groups and their cause instead of adopting a usual democratic negotiation method and compromise. For the so-called strongman leaders in these hybrid democracies, acceptance of protesters’ demand is not a responsible leadership quality but a sign of weakness.

International support for protests is being projected as foreign interference, and the protesting groups are being persecuted for asking or accepting it. Overall, the result has been that the world is witnessing more and more protests and increasing international support to them, but not many succeed in achieving their stated goals.

The undemocratic response of hybrid regimes towards popular protest and its internationalisation has brought more crisis and chaos to this world.