Over the past year, the world has witnessed an amazing diversity in the ways people have reacted to a loss of hope for their economic future – now almost a global phenomenon.
Among Arabs, nonviolent protests as well as armed rebellion erupted in January against corrupt despots who had created sclerotic economies.
In America, the “Occupy” movement emerged for those on the left who feel marginalized by the economic failings of both Wall Street and a money-driven democracy, just as the tea party began after the recession for those on the right.
In Europe, Greeks rioted against a forced austerity, while in Britain, civil servants went on strike over massive budget cuts. Across the Continent, many parliamentary governments have fallen as economies faltered – with their opponents given a chance to do better. In Italy and Greece, technocrats now rule.
Many Russians simply refused to vote in protest over Mr. Putin’s heavy-handed tactics against democratic opponents. Others disfigured their ballots. Millions of Russians didn’t vote because they long ago fled to the West out of disgust with the Putin-era corruption that skews the nation’s oil-driven prosperity.
For most Russians, economic growth is just too low, reminiscent of the Soviet Brezhnev era, while the state pension system remains seriously underfunded. The result is that United Russia has lost its supermajority in parliament and can barely claim a majority. To assure his election as president in March, a now-humbled Putin plans massive state spending – if high oil prices allow it.
In India, economic anxiety among the middle class combined with Internet activism have helped ignite a mass movement against corruption. In South Africa, high youth unemployment has polarized the ruling African National Congress, leading to infighting and the ouster of a key youth leader.
China’s sudden drop in manufacturing – a rare event – has raised fears among the ruling Communist Party of even more widespread protests by local workers and farmers. In a report on Saturday, China’s top security chief, Zhou Yongkang, warned party cadre of the need for better “social management.” For the first time, the government plans to spend more on “public security” than the military. That means more police and surveillance of potential dissidents.
In authoritarian countries like China, the lack of democracy denies an outlet for popular venting of economic frustrations. Russia’s elections reflect a mix, however, with both the use of repression and a controlled democracy.
As the world economy slows, a competition between models of governance is heating up. Democracies ought to be more aware that they can win that contest through quicker, smarter righting of their economies.