The age of protests
Police clash with masked demonstrators in Athens on October 20, where tens of thousands of protesters rallied.
April 23rd, 2012
10:52 AM ET

The age of protests

Editor’s Note: Dr Maha Hosain Aziz is a Professor of Politics (adjunct) in the MA Program at New York University, a Senior Analyst at geopolitical consultancy Wikistrat and an Asia Insight Columnist for Bloomberg Businessweek.

By Maha Hosain Aziz - Special to CNN

If you were a politician in 2011 in South Asia, there’s a good chance you might very well have been slapped. In both Nepal and India, a citizen so frustrated by political inertia physically lashed out at his local politician. If you were leader of a country with high youth unemployment in the Middle East or Western Europe, there’s no question you faced waves of anti-government protest. Even in Russia - usually immune to challenges to the state - you experienced some form of public discontent over the status quo.

In fact, on every continent last year, in major, middle and small states, citizens expressed bursts of frustration against their governments. Such sentiment has continued in 2012; recurrent protests indicate citizens’ lack of confidence in their political leaders and their conviction that there must be a better, more legitimate way to govern.

But this phenomenon isn’t just about political leaders losing public support - it’s also about policies losing legitimacy. In 2011, groups of citizens stood up to attack specific government policies they felt were simply not legitimate. In parts of India, they didn’t trust the new anti-corruption bill, leading to hunger strikes. Across Spain, Greece and Italy, they didn’t believe the government’s austerity policies were fair, prompting mass protests. In the tiny hamlet of Ballyhea, Ireland, citizens publicly disapproved of the state’s decision to bail out banks, staging demonstrations every Sunday for 43 weeks. In Chile, they didn’t agree with the government’s education policy, leading to protests for over seven months.

In 2012, this particular crisis of policy legitimacy has endured: citizens continue to actively question their leaders’ policies before and after they are implemented. They don’t believe current economic, political or social policies will work.  They feel there must be a better, more legitimate policy alternative.

In Europe, for instance, it’s no secret how intensely citizens feel about certain economic policies to the point that some have committed suicide.  Earlier this month, a 77-year old shot himself in the head in Athens’ Syntagma Square over pension cuts. This was in the backdrop of austerity protests that have recurred all over Greece since 2010.

In Spain last month, during a general strike, thousands held protest marches in various cities over the government’s spending cuts. In Barcelona, the demonstrations became violent with protesters smashing storefront windows and setting street trashcans on fire. Around this time, in Lisbon, Portugal, strikers blocked trains and shut down ports to protest the stringent economic conditions imposed as part of the EU-IMF bailout. In the Czech Republic, massive protests over tax hikes and budget cuts resurfaced in Prague’s Wenceslas Square on Saturday, involving more than 80,000 workers, students and pensioners.

But citizens have not just found economic policies lacking in legitimacy - many have taken issue with specific political policies. In January in Budapest, Hungary, for instance, thousands staged protests and hunger strikes over the country’s new constitution, only one day after it was formalized. Protesters spoke out against the undemocratic nature of the constitution, which they felt hinders individual liberties, media freedom and government accountability.

In Russia, some anti-Putin protesters have shifted their focus to local politics.  Two weeks ago, thousands rallied against alleged fraud in Astrakhan’s mayoral election, after losing candidate Oleg Shein went on a month-long hunger strike. In India, last year’s focus on the anti-corruption bill has resurfaced - activist Anna Hazare is planning a protest fast in New Delhi on June 3 to demand a stronger anti-corruption bill than the one drafted by government.

Social policies have been targeted as well. In January, thousands of Romanians rioted in Bucharest over a controversial government health plan, sparring violently with police until the plan was scrapped days later. In Spain last week, the government announced dramatic healthcare cuts: medicines will no longer be free to pensioners, which is already being questioned by some protesters.

In Quebec province, Canada, for over nine weeks, more than 300,000 students have been protesting over a government plan to increase university tuition by 75% over the next five years; last week, in Montreal, protests became violent with hundreds of students throwing stones at police officers armed with tear gas. In Naples, Italy, a museum director attacked the government’s policy - or lack thereof - to support the arts last week. He is set to burn three works of art per week in protest until politicians take notice.

There’s no doubt that the relationship between government and citizen in most countries (whether democratic, authoritarian, or hybrid) is at a considerable, perhaps all-time, low.  We are clearly in the throes of a crisis of policy legitimacy.

The greatest struggle for political leaders continues to be how to regain the confidence of a very jaded citizenry such that they can effectively govern. In the meantime, we should expect that in most countries, citizens will continue to challenge the legitimacy of their government’s economic, political or social policies - no matter their merit - for the rest of 2012. We should also expect that at some point this year, in some part of the world, yet another politician will likely be slapped by a citizen so frustrated over his government’s policy failures.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Maha Hosain Aziz.

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Topics: Global • Protests

soundoff (28 Responses)
  1. George Patton

    Judging by the way the current politicins are leading Europe these days, the people over there have a lot to protest about!!! The first thing these idiots need to do, but won't is to break up the Eurozone which has never been anything but a bad idea to begin with. Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler and the Communists in Eastern Europe have long ago learned this simple lesson!!!

    April 23, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Reply
  2. Rabbi

    Focus needs to be Israel, not protests...

    What stupid Americans seem not to understand, is that Jews are chosen people.

    We will reap the rewards of our faithful service to Yahweh.

    The goyim of this world should be happy to fight over the scraps that we Jews throw from table.

    Israel will reign supreme over earth, and anybody challenging that assertion will be conquered, with the help of US military.

    You people may not like us Jews, but you WILL learn to fear us.

    If a few of you must die to save a few of us....that's a bargain I can live with. Your own nations agree with me on this.

    Your sacrafices are necessary to ensure the survival of the only democracy in the middle east. Be happy.

    April 23, 2012 at 6:44 pm | Reply
    • George Patton

      What you don't understand Rabbi, is that Greece is going to fall into the worst depression it had since the 1930's and the Greeks will suffer as a result. Greece needs to leave the Eurozone and this has nothing to do with Israel.

      April 23, 2012 at 7:45 pm | Reply
    • ✠ RZ ✠

      Ditto for me George. The Rabbi's rabid.

      April 23, 2012 at 8:46 pm | Reply
    • Joao

      Please no sarcasm!

      April 24, 2012 at 11:07 am | Reply
    • Unknown

      He is a troll! All he talks about is "Israel this" and "Israel that." He needs to emerge out of his bubble and realize the whole world does not revolve are Israel.

      April 24, 2012 at 3:34 pm | Reply
    • KorKomen

      Rabbi is just another of those people who live under an ideal that their religion is the best and all that stuff..

      "Jews are superior and stuff" right...anything else to tell us?

      also, the world doesn't revolve around Israel. (clearly said by "Unknown")

      oh and..."you'll learn to fear us?" you are telling us that Jews are to be feared? that they have intentions on harming us?
      so...basically, you people live on ideals of violence?

      i have some friends who are Jews over here...and they are ok hanging around people of different religions. they also aren't..."fear us" type of people. fail at trolling. thinking that people actually will "fear" blind, ignorant extremists as you.

      April 24, 2012 at 6:26 pm | Reply
    • rightospeak

      Racist state ,for Jews only, is a Fascist state. What democracy ?

      April 24, 2012 at 9:29 pm | Reply
    • Pamela Haley Design

      My blonde hair, blue eyes and agnostic state indicate my superiority if we are going down this road...

      April 25, 2012 at 11:44 am | Reply
    • Cures Riches

      Are you really Jewish?

      April 27, 2012 at 11:30 am | Reply
    • mattk

      He's not jewish. I bet he's an anti-Semite trying to stir up anger against the jews. Find another venue to spout your hatred. Your not welcome here.

      April 27, 2012 at 11:26 pm | Reply
    • Stormtrooper

      Rabbi, your Bolshevik cohorts are to blame for these AntiFa, Anarcho-communist rioters. Their slogan around the world is "All Cops Are Bast***s" and they regularly bring their Anarchist Black Bloc counter-demonstrations to World Trade Organization/G-12 summits and to Nationalist/National Socialist demonstrations.

      The European people have been played like puppets for your Zionist interests from the end of WW-1 through the Cold War and your days are numbered.


      April 30, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Reply
  3. ✠ RZ ✠

    "The Age of Protests". Not bad. I like it. Sounds like the right thing to do and has even worked in some cases.

    April 23, 2012 at 8:12 pm | Reply
    • kyrani99

      The "Age of Protest" real good here have a look.

      April 30, 2012 at 9:26 am | Reply
  4. j. von hettlingen

    While many protestes revolve around government progams (policies) that are questioned by many, politics is more about the practice of government, especially the activities associated with governing, Policies can be changed, but politics has to be reformed. Corruption in India and the autocracy in Hungary can't be ditched overnight.

    April 24, 2012 at 4:13 am | Reply
  5. EVN

    Governments everywhere cater to their respective elites. Many of the common people are realizing that their respective governments are the problem. Add a good dose of growth of underground economies (as high as 30% in Greece and Italy already) and the financial problems facing most government will grow to the point of being unable to afford to control their subjects. The elites are going to need a plan "B", but there won't be anyone with enough credibility left to sell it.

    April 24, 2012 at 10:19 am | Reply
  6. Tom

    Seems to me almost everyone of the examples given above revolved around people protesting the loss of there covetted freebies. They should spend there energies becoming more self reliant. Social programs cost money and when you are a second tier EU country who can't just print more the only answer truely is to suck it up and live within your means. Sorry but socialism and equality for all is a fantasy that only leads to revolution and will eventually give rise to a despot like stalin, or mao.

    April 24, 2012 at 5:54 pm | Reply
    • seppe

      You have right not to like socialism for the general population,and i have a right not to like socialism for the few wealthy ones,the bottom line is that the mass that support the few are the one that need the opportunity and the tools to be able to survive and become of the few and not for the FEW for ever. the many are human as well, being poor,handicap,sick,or not able to master the skill to become one of the FEW,IT'S NOT A CHOICE. and as far as the freebies, that is exactly watt they the (FEW)are enjoying at a present time. IF IS NOT SO PRUVE ME WRONG!!!

      April 24, 2012 at 7:34 pm | Reply
      • Andrey

        I thouught that the history has proven you wrong already. Did not Soviet Union fall at the end? Did not socialism cost dearly all the peoples who made the mistake following it?
        Or you prefer to ignore history lessons?

        April 26, 2012 at 8:07 am |
  7. rightospeak

    My main comment vanished-Dr. Azziz is just blowing smoke without any analysis, so I was critical. Do not want to waste my time here. Time to move on. No intellectual stimulation, just propaganda very much like the kind Communists dole out.

    April 24, 2012 at 9:34 pm | Reply
  8. fk iran

    iran is the evil hands behind all these terrorists acts in bahrain , labenon , syria iraq and hamas,
    also africa and around the world.
    why israel is so silent , attack them now before it is too late ...dont wate for this black half muslim usa president to help....

    April 25, 2012 at 8:05 pm | Reply
  9. Andrey

    Angry Mob Rules!
    I do not see much protesting lately, angry mob and anarchy – that is all!
    That is logical extension of Liberal ideology. And I see instigation via Internet mass media. Even a small group of extremists is quite capable today of creating all kind of problems and even overturning a government: the feat previously available only to a few well financed state agencies in the world.

    April 26, 2012 at 8:00 am | Reply
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    April 28, 2012 at 3:46 am | Reply
  11. Good piece.

    Very insightful and clear.

    April 29, 2012 at 9:18 pm | Reply
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    July 29, 2012 at 10:28 pm | Reply

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