Arab Spring to the Chilean Revolution

The quest for participative democracy continues

Arab spring
Illustration: Mata Ciccolella /

From September 1973 to October 2020, democracy in Chile has traversed the full spectrum ranging from its nadir of the brutal military coup to the zenith of the revolutionary referendum and the “Million Man March” demanding the drafting of a new Chilean Constitution. The first two decades of the 21st Century has witnessed a new form of participatory non-violent civil society protest movements across the globe.

They are spread across the world, ranging from Egypt’s Tahrir Square to the “Black Lives Matter” movement in the US, from the “Yellow Vests” movement in France to the historic Brexit, from Brazil of 2015-16 to Lebanon of 2019-20, from the streets of Hong Kong to all the major cities of India. Basically, heterogeneous mass protest movements have defined much of the early part of the 21st century.

A collage photo showing the following protest movement photos in a clockwise manner from the top-left corner- Wall street movement in the US (source: Newsweek), Anti-CAA movement in India (source: Hindustan Times), Hong Kong protests (source : Sky News), Arab Spring in Egypt (source : US News) , Brexit marches (source : Reuters) , Chile protests (source : Al Jazeera).

Definition of Modern Democracy and the notion of Participative Democracy

Aristotle in ancient Greece described Democracy as “The government of the poor or those less fortunate”. Let us ride back from ancient Greece to the modern world. In the Universal Declaration on Democracy, the Inter-Parliamentary Council (IPC) of the UN declares in the 1st Part that “Democracy is thus a basic Right of citizenship to be exercised under conditions of freedom, equality, transparency and responsibility with due respect for plurality of views” and also goes on to proclaim that “Democracy is founded on the primacy of the law and the exercise of Human Rights”. Participative Democracy has its origin in the 2nd Part of the Declaration, where it is stated that “Democracy is founded on the Right of everyone to take part in the management of public affairs”. Thus, the concept of participative democracy is not as alien a concept as some of the autocratic governments across the world make it look like.

A new form of protests and its origin

The 21st Century began with a flourishing global hegemonic capitalist system with the US sitting at its pinnacle. But the next decade saw several military interventions and expeditions primarily led by the US and its allies (UK and France) in the Middle East and Afghanistan. The US got embroiled in their biggest military conflict since the dark days of Vietnam. This increased military expansionism coincided with an unprecedented global financial crisis which surfaced in 2008. This was the biggest financial crisis the world had seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Capitalism, as we know it, based on the “Trickle Down” Theory of economics was suddenly feeling the heat. Suffering from negative growth and high debt, many large capitalist democracies suddenly found themselves on the verge of economic bankruptcy. Countries declaring bankruptcy, major multinational corporations closing down started a wave of unemployment and financial instability which spread from the developed nations to the developing ones (ironically just like the “Trickle Down” Theory). How did Capitalism respond? Nations started adopting strong fiscal austerity measures, high taxation policies, reductions in government spending like subsidies, health and education sectors. As time passed, the situation only worsened. People reeling under unpaid loans, mortgaged homes, high taxes, reduced subsidies and growing unemployment started hitting the streets in mass protest. This ranged from Europe (France, Greece, Ireland and many more) to Latin America (Brazil, Ecuador, Chile and many more). Thus, economic inequality stemming from globalization and capitalism was the biggest contributor to the rise of street protest movements. But it was not the only reason.

The biggest political reason was a quest for more effective, participative and transparent form of functional Democracy. Democracy as we had mostly seen in the last half of the 20th Century was mainly equivalent and limited to electoral democracy. Exercising Universal Adult Franchise, the citizens of a nation could directly elect Parliament or the President to enact legislations and govern. But the fallacies of democracy being only limited to the electoral version of it were being felt across continents. On the other hand, a participative democracy is one in which the electorate not only elects its legislature but also participates actively in public opinion forming, policy drafting and governance. Protest movements originating out of political instability, financial crisis, climate crisis, government authoritarianism and rising militarisation has been on the rise for the last two decades. There has been protest movements aimed at enacting popular transparent legislations seeking higher degrees of government accountability or scrapping of draconian laws (like the Lokpal Bill movement or the Anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) movement in India) or sometimes seeking meaningful Government action regarding certain extraordinary situations. For example, the Shahbag movement in Bangladesh was not aimed at toppling the government at all, but its objective was to force the government to take action against the ghastly war criminals of the 1971 Liberation War.

 If the 20th Century saw armed revolutions aimed at overthrowing establishments and seeking Socialism as its goal, the 21st Century is witnessing participative, mass civil society street movements aimed at quenching the thirst for more economic, political and societal freedom and higher degrees of citizenry participation in the functioning of democracy.

Leadership, composition and protest methodologies

The matters of leadership and protesters’ composition in these mass movements need to be understood in detail. Across countries there has been a sinking of public confidence in established traditional political parties. This has stemmed from political and financial corruption, ineffectiveness and rampant nepotism in the political class. Most of the protest movements have been relatively spontaneous and organised through the online digital social media platforms. An important attribute has been the fact that leaders did not create these movements, but these movements created a new league of civil society leaders. Be it Nigel Paul Farage of Brexit or Imran Sarkar of Shahbag or Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khaled in India, these new-age protest movement leaders have been a product of functional and active civil society activism.

The composition and nature of the protest groups has also been as intriguing and vibrant as the protests itself. The protest movements have been characterised by the diverse and heterogeneous nature of the participating protestors. There has been a mammoth participation of women, teenagers, intellectuals, educationists, students across the spectrum. Subtle ideological differences have not been a barrier in drawing up of the basic charter of demands, designing protest methodologies and setting up of movement’s objectives.

For example, in the Arab Spring revolution of 2011, the Muslim brotherhood stood hand in hand with the Communists and Social Democrats in seeking the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. This has been a common trait of these protest movements. As these movements have not been led by single political parties, there has been participation from the political activist circles as well as the cultural and social activist circles. LGBT rights organisations have thronged the streets as well. There has been a large-scale participation of intellectuals, actors, writers, journalists, free and independent thinkers. As discussed earlier, most of these movements were aimed at the ruling establishment, major financial giants and the globalised capitalist system. Thus, we can easily say that, at the crux of these movements have been the anti-fascism, anti-imperialism, pro-social welfare and pro-leftist ideology. The basic objectives of participative and transparent democracy, more egalitarianism and social welfare have been the common demand across the centre-left to the radical-left of the political spectrum.

These aforementioned movements saw many novel protest methodologies. These movements have been characterised by civil resistance and disobedience, demonstrations, road sit-ins, online activism, singing protest anthems, enacting street plays, impromptu speeches, displaying colourful and powerful hand-drawn posters and mass reciting of the Constitutional rights. These new and unique ways of demonstrations have attracted the young generation and women of all ages to these movements. In today’s times of online activism, this translation of online protests to real and physical resistance has been the hallmark of these civil mass movements.

A brief note on some popular mass movements and their objectives

The objectives of these movements have varied from one country to another. But the common point that has remained ingrained in all these protests is the hunger and quest for more answerable, open, transparent and participative form of Democracy. As discussed earlier, there has been widespread anger and resentment against globalization, capitalism and Nations’ big brotherly attitude towards its citizens. Most of the objectives have been political or economics related. A tilt towards the Left of Centre, more social freedom, decrease in the State’s oppressive measures, more civil liberties have been the rallying point for many. Most of the Arabian and North African revolutions from 2011 to 2016 resulted in the ouster of ruling dispensations like that of Gaddafi in Libya or Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.

The majority of the European movements like that of the Yellow Vests movement of France, anti-austerity movements in Italy, Ireland and Greece have led to incumbent governments getting voted out of power. The biggest story in Europe was the Brexit. The British crown rooted for the UK to remain in the European Union but the astounding referendum results where there for everyone to see. Globalisation had angered a much larger section of the society than it had pacified. It had created enormous economic inequality and disparity.

In the US, the Occupy movement created a war-cry of “We are the 99%”, reflecting the deep alienation the majority of Americans (the have-nots) felt in comparison with the top 1% of the society (the haves). This alienation was a direct result of capitalist economic benefits that reached only the top layer and multinational corporations. The public frustration was directed against the Multinational Wall Street corporations who were the reason for the global financial crisis on one hand and on the other hand the US government used public funds to bail them out. The more recent Black Lives Matter movement started as a protest against the brutal police murder of African-American George Floyd in Minneapolis, but soon spiralled into a pan-USA movement against racism ingrained across US institutions and society.

South America has witnessed large-scale protest movements against authoritarian regimes in Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and many other countries. Most of these South American countries were tired of financial austerity measures, lowered government subsidies and pensions, high healthcare and education spending, high gas bills and a long list of reasons plaguing their finances and lives. The protests in Chile began as a simple demonstration against a hike in metro ticket prices and soon it translated into the “Million Man March” in the streets of Santiago. The Chilean referendum resulted in an overwhelming 78% of citizens demanding the scrapping of the illegitimate dictatorial Pinochet Constitution of 1980 in favour of a “more egalitarian” new Constitution.

In the South-East Asian region, there have been large and widespread protest movements in India, Pakistan, China and Bangladesh in the last decade. India has witnessed civil society activism and movements of massive proportions in 2019 against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The ruling rightwing government has been forced to put the aforementioned legislation in the backseat and has not framed the CAA rules even after passing the controversial legislation in parliament nearly one year back.

In Pakistan there was massive civil unrest in 2013-14 culminating in the Azadi March against the Nawaz Sharif government. There were claims of systemic election rigging and subverting of democracy by the ruling party. Pakistan saw an overhaul of the erstwhile Nawaz Sharif government.

In Bangladesh there was a separate story altogether. The war criminals who perpetrated unimaginable violence through genocide of Bengalis and indiscriminate rape of women during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War had remained largely unpunished for more than four decades (from 1971 to 2013). Even with a secular and liberal Sheikh Hasina government in power nothing substantial was being done in this regard. The Shahbag movement of 2013 led by students and intellectuals brought the country to a grinding halt. Finally, the government passed a new law to punish Abdul Qader Mollah and the other war criminals swiftly and the Bangladesh Supreme Court complied.

In China, the Hong Kong protests have been there for the whole world to see. China has been systematically undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy and infringing civil liberties. The clashes in the streets of Hong Kong between the pro-democracy protestors and the authoritarian Chinese regime has given a sneak peek into what happens to democratic movements in an opaque Chinese system. The world would love to know more about the plight of democratic protests in Tibet (Buddhists led by the 14th Dalai Lama) and Xinjiang (Uighur Muslims). But rest assured, the way this quest for democracy has advanced in the first two decades of the 21st century, it will not be long before the streets of Beijing get flooded with pro-democracy protestors. It is not possible to enlist all the mass movements and their objectives in this article, thus a notable few have been elaborated.

The way forward towards a more democratic and egalitarian future

In a nutshell, it can be concluded that democracy and the hunger for it has been at the epicentre of all protest mass movements across the globe. The path ahead is laden with several obstacles and limitations which need to be either eased or erased. The United Nations (UN) cannot limit its role to merely framing certain guidelines. The UN needs to effectively counter and reprimand undemocratic practices in various countries to safeguard civil liberties, democratic institutions and human rights. The UN needs to reform and revamp its Security Council and allow a more diverse representation in the Security Council’s permanent members section. The entire continents of South America and Africa have no representation in the Security Council’s permanent member section. For the UN to remain credible, effective and relevant enough in the 21st century multi-polar and diverse world, it needs to come out of its 75-year-old post-World War II era composition and thought process.

The current global politico-social situation is filled with both threats and opportunities. Right-wing authoritarianism has been on the rise in several countries like Turkey, Brazil, India, Hungary and many others. The threats of fascism, dictatorship and authoritarianism of elected governments have to be fought by the progressive and democratic forces seeking to expand the spectre and effectiveness of democracy. The Left and democratic forces have a very crucial role to play in this resistance against the growing clout of the authoritarian Right. The single basic objective should be to fight for the protection of democratic institutions of nations, to name a few – the Judiciary, Election Commission, Legislature and Executive. In order to protect these institutions from the intrusion of an authoritarian and repressive State, the free and independent media platforms, the civil society and the intellectual intelligentsia must act as the “Checks and Balances” point for the government’s execution of governance. The independent media and the civil society have the hallowed job of creating public opinion in a democracy. Abraham Lincoln once said, “The Country with its institutions belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing Government they can exercise their Constitutional right of amending it or their Revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it”. As Lincoln had meant more than a century back, when democratic rights of citizens are suppressed and subverted by States, it is the duty and right of the citizenry to rise in revolution. Democracy cannot be and shall not be the Will of the State, but it shall be the Will of the Citizens. Our quest for more transparent and inclusive forms of participative democracy through mass movements shall only grow up and beyond as “we have nothing to lose but our chains”. Let the wise words of Gandhi be our guiding light – “Civil Disobedience becomes a sacred duty when the State becomes lawless or corrupt”.

*Debaditya Raychaudhuri teaches Computer Science at Chandernagore College, West Bengal, India. He is an enthusiast of Indian politics and hails from a Bengali refugee family.



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