Activist Anna Hazare’s supporters celebrating in New Delhi after he ended his hunger strike when Parliament agreed to his anti-corruption measures. — NYT picture
By Nicholas kulish
More and more people the world over are taking to the streets, in part because they have little faith in the ballot box, writes NICHOLAS KULISH
HUNDREDS of thousands of disillusioned Indians cheer a rural activist on a hunger strike. Israel reels before the largest street demonstrations in its history. Enraged young people in Spain and Greece take over public squares across their countries.
Their complaints range from corruption to lack of affordable housing and joblessness, common grievances the world over. But from South Asia to the heartland of Europe and now even to Wall Street, these protesters share something else: wariness, even contempt, towards traditional politicians and the democratic political process they preside over. They are taking to the streets, in part, because they have little faith in the ballot box.
“Our parents are grateful because they’re voting,” said Marta Solanas, 27, referring to older Spaniards’ decades spent under the Franco dictatorship. “We’re the first generation to say that voting is worthless.”
Economics has been one driving force, with growing income inequality, high unemployment and recession-driven cuts in social spending breeding widespread malaise. Alienation runs especially deep in Europe, with boycotts and strikes that, in London and Athens, erupted into violence.
But even in India and Israel, where growth remains robust, protesters say they so distrust their country’s political class and its pandering to established interest groups that they feel only an assault on the system itself can bring about real change.
Young Israeli organisers repeatedly turned out gigantic crowds insisting that their political leaders, regardless of party, had been so thoroughly captured by security concerns, ultra-Orthodox groups and other special interests that they could no longer respond to the country’s middle class.
In the world’s largest democracy, Anna Hazare, an activist, starved himself publicly for 12 days until the Indian Parliament capitulated to some of his central demands on a proposed anti-corruption measure to hold public officials accountable.
“We elect the people’s representatives so they can solve our problems,” said Sarita Singh, 25, among the thousands who gathered each day at Ramlila Maidan, where monsoon rains turned the grounds to mud but protesters waved Indian flags and sang patriotic songs. “But, that is not actually happening. Corruption is ruling our country.”
Increasingly, citizens of all ages, but particularly the young, are rejecting conventional structures like parties and trade unions in favour of a less hierarchical, more participatory system modelled in many ways on the culture of the Web.
In that sense, the protest movements in democracies are not altogether unlike those that have rocked authoritarian governments this year, toppling longtime leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Protesters have created their own political space online that is chilly, sometimes openly hostile, towards traditional institutions of the elite.
The rising disillusionment comes 20 years after what was celebrated as democratic capitalism’s final victory over communism and dictatorship.
In the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, a consensus emerged that liberal economics combined with democratic institutions represented the only path forward. That consensus, championed by scholars like Francis Fukuyama in his book The End of History and the Last Man, has been shaken if not broken by a seemingly endless succession of crises — the Asian financial collapse of 1997, the Internet bubble that burst in 2000, the subprime crisis of 2007 to 2008 and the continuing European and American debt crisis — and the seeming inability of policymakers to deal with them or cushion their people from the shocks.
Frustrated voters are not agitating for a dictator to take over. But, they say they do not know where to turn at a time when political choices of the Cold War era seem hollow.
“Even when capitalism fell into its worst crisis since the 1920s, there was no viable alternative vision,” said the British left-wing author Owen Jones.
Protests in Britain exploded into lawlessness last month. Rampaging youths smashed store windows and set fires in London and beyond, using communication systems like BlackBerry Messenger to evade the police. They had savvy and technology, Jones said, but lacked a belief that the political system represented their interests. They also lacked hope.
“The young people who took part in the riots didn’t feel they had a future to risk,”
In Spain, walloped by the developed world’s highest official rate of unemployment, at 21 per cent, many have lost the confidence that politicians of any party can find a solution. Their demands are vague, but their cry for help is plaintive and determined. Known as indignados or the outraged, they block traffic, occupy squares and gather for teach-ins.
While the Spanish and Israeli demonstrations were peaceful, critics have raised concerns over the urge to bypass representative institutions.
In India, Hazare’s crusade to “fast unto death” unless Parliament enacted his anti-corruption law struck some supporters as self-sacrifice. Many opponents viewed his tactics as undemocratic blackmail.
Hundreds of thousands of people turned out last month in New Delhi to vent a visceral outrage at the state of Indian politics. One banner read: “If your blood is not boiling now, then your blood is not blood!” The campaign by Hazare, 74, was intended to force Parliament to consider his anti-corruption legislation instead of a weaker alternative put forth by the government.
Parliament unanimously passed a resolution endorsing central pieces of his proposal, and lawmakers are expected to approve an anti-corruption measure in the next session. Hazare’s anti-corruption campaign tapped a deep chord with the public precisely because he was not a politician. Many voters feel that Indian democracy and the major parties, the Congress Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party, have become unresponsive and captive to interest groups. For almost a year, India’s news media and government auditors have exposed tawdry government scandals involving billions of dollars in graft.
In many European countries the disappointment is twofold — in heavily indebted federal governments pulling back from social spending and in a European Union viewed as distant and undemocratic. European leaders have dictated harsh austerity measures in the name of stability for the euro, the region’s common currency, rubber-stamped by captive and corrupt national politicians, protesters say.
“The biggest crisis is a crisis of legitimacy,” a Spanish protester said. “We don’t think they are doing anything for us.” — NYT