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When Politicians Have To Listen

2013 Jul 12

Charitha Ratwatte

International Footballs’ Confederation Cup, a lead-up to the World Cup, is being played out in Brazil. You would expect that the ‘Beautiful Game’ would be the total focus among football crazy Brazilians. But more than a million people in over 100 cities have erupted in anti-Government protests.

Things became so intolerable for the Brazilian Football elite that the icon of Brazilian Football, the renowned Pele, appealed to his countrymen to “forget the protests and concentrate on football”. He was howled down and had to retract, declaring that he too supported peaceful protests.

The protests began over an increase of 20 centavos (nine US cents) in transport fares, but they have transformed themselves into a rally against political corruption, lack of governance and the costs being incurred by Brazil to host next year’s football World Cup.

The politicians at first unleashed the riot police on the protesters. Ill-trained, brutal police turned a mostly peaceful march into a terrifying rout. Officers with their name tags removed fired stun grenades and rubber bullets at protesters. But soon the politicians had to listen – and rolled back the increase in transport charges!

Demanding change

But this abject surrender by the political class has failed to quell the protests. One protester said: “This means that our politicians have begun to hear our voices. This is something which has never happened before – in a non election year at least. It’s a start. What happens next, nobody knows, but it gives us hope.” Another said: “It’s not about the price of transport any more. People are so disgusted with the system, so fed up, now, we are demanding change.”

The politicians thought the Confederation Cup would be a distraction. However at the final, even when it was Brazil – Spain and Brazil won in a rout, four to zero – the demonstrators were there!

Earlier President Dilma Roussef was planning a State visit abroad. The Mayor of Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city was in Paris, canvassing for the 2020 World’s fair, just the sort of extravagant wasting of public funds – Confederation Cup, World Cup, etc., which was the protesters’ target.

Demonstrators held up placards demanding schools and hospitals at ‘FIFA standards,’ mocking the demands set by the International Football Federation (FIFA) for the football stadium and other facilities for the World Cup! They challenged the justification of Brazil spending seven billion Rials on stadiums alone for the World Cup, rather than schools and hospitals. They chanted: “First world stadiums, third world schools and hospitals”.

Corruption

Corruption is also a target. Ricardo Teixeria, president of the Brazilian Football Confederation, who was instrumental in Brazil being chosen to host the World Cup, had to resign last year, under a cloud of corruption allegations in World Cup-related expenditure. The expenditure by the Brazilian Government for the stadiums to host the World Cup has gone beyond estimates and is over budget.

The protesters are also targeting the political class. The Governor of Sao Paolo State made an announcement, just prior to the demonstrations, that he was giving himself and thousands of other public employees a raise of emoluments of over 10%. The people were livid – one said: “I think our politicians get too much money.” They chanted: “Give up the World Cup. We want money for education and health.”

In Brasilia, the nation’s capital, political corruption loomed large, with politicians being accused of giving themselves high salaries and appointing relatives to phony jobs. Brazil is a successful emerging economy, one of the celebrated BRICSA, Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Unemployment is at a historical low. But there is a huge discernible gap between economic capacity of the protesters and the country’s politician class.

Analysts have described the reason for the unrest as an aspirational issue. The expectation of the average Brazilian is very high; they aspire for a better quality of life, and see the corruption and luxury of the lifestyle of the political class and are angry. President Roussef to placate the protesters has stated that spending on infrastructure would be increased and that a referendum will be held on political reform. Brazil’s Congress also hastened to vote against a bill which would have restricted the power of prosecutors to investigate corruption.
Protestors and people generally have been scandalised by politicians convicted in an election time vote buying scheme known as the Mensalao case, continuing to sit in Congress on bail, pending appeal against their convictions in the criminal court. Brazil’s Congress also proposed to allocate royalties from oil and gas sales to education and health. Brazilian politicians are clearly in panic mode, but as analysts point out, throwing taxpayer’s money at public services will not help. The core issue with the protests is lack of governance

Turkey

In Turkey, Ergodan, the Prime Minister, has won three consecutive elections. He seems to think he has perpetual impunity. Turkey is not a ballot-ocracy, it still is a democracy, winning at an election does not give the winner the right to dictate, legitimacy in a democracy transcends the ballot box. Protestors have been demonstrating against him for weeks, since May this year.

Protestors first raised objections to the conversion of a green space in Istanbul – Taksim Gezi Park – into a series of buildings, including a shopping mall, a mosque and a replica Ottoman Army barrack. Succumbing to the protests partially, Ergodan backed off from the shopping mall, but continued to promote the mosque.
He said: “The mosque will be built in Taksim, I do not need permission from the main opposition and a few looters. We have been granted authority by those who voted for us at the ballot box.”

The mosque has been a dream of Turkey’s Islamist movement for decades. Later the protesters targeted a wide range of concerns, issues of freedom of the press, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and the Government’s encroachment on Turkey’s secularism, a standard set by modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

With no centralised leadership, the protests have been compared with the Arab Spring, the Occupy Movement and the protests in Brazil, the anti-austerity demonstration in Italy and Greece. Ergodan dismissed the protesters as “a few capulcu” (looters). But the protesters converted the branding into ‘capulling,’ meaning fighting for your rights!

The iconic ‘Standing Man’ Erdem Gunduz, a choreographer, stood silent and motionless for eight hours in Taksim Square, inspiring hundreds of men and women across Turkey – and in many other countries as well – to take root in the same way, to protest.

The Turkish Government has unleashed the Riot Police against the protesters. Water cannons mixed with pepper spray and tear gas has been used to disperse thousands of flower-bearing protesters who gathered in Istanbul’s central Taksim Square to commemorate four people who have died since the unrest started in May.
Police launched their most vicious attack on protesters camped at Gezi Park. Hordes of Riot Police ripped out the protesters’ tents, tore down their banners and doused them with tear gas. Hundreds fled into a nearby luxury hotel, only to be tear-gassed there as well. Over 7,000 protesters have been injured since the violence began.

“Global conspiracy”

Ergodan has declared that what is happening in Turkey is the same as in Brazil. “There are the same symbols, the same posters. Twitter, Facebook is the same. So are the international media. They are doing their best to achieve in Brazil what they could not achieve in Turkey. It is the same game, the same trap, the same goal.”
Prime Minister Ergodan says the Turkish protests are linked to terrorism, an international plot against his country (this seems all autocrats’ favourite bogey!) and an ‘interest rate lobby’. Doctors who tended to the injured and lawyers who defended them in courts were denounced by Ergodan as a part of a global conspiracy.
After the Police cleared Taksim Square and withdrew, the protesters went back. It became an ‘Occupy’ like camp. Social media played a key part in mobilising protestors. The Government has given the national spy agency sweeping powers to monitor citizens. One is reminded of Edward Snowdon and the USA’s National Security Agency’s alleged surveillance program, Prism!

Demonstrators are on the streets again over the courts releasing a Policeman in custody, over the shooting of a protester, the release was on the grounds that the shooting ‘may have been accidental’. On Tuesday 25 June when the protesters gathered in Taksim Square, the Riot Police was nowhere to be seen. May be Ergodan is finally listening? The stand-offs continue at the time of writing.

Public outrage

Worldwide there have been many instances when public outrage has forced public figures into action or forced them to refrain from taking action or taking steps to remedy a situation highlighted by protesters.

In the Philippines, the anti-Marcos Yellow Revolution was an early example. In India, Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal led the way with the demonstrations in support of the anti-corruption Lok Pal. The rape of a young girl in a moving bus saw public anger which was unprecedented and the political leadership had to fall in line, appoint a Commission under retired Chief Justice Verma to propose new legislation and bring in new laws, albeit much watered down from the Verma Commission’s original proposals, to create new offences and enhanced punishments, for what was crudely and quaintly referred to as Eve Teasing, sexual harassment of women. The ongoing public outrage on more and more rape cases, sadly of children, being reported in India fuels the anger.

The world financial crisis spawned the Occupy Movement in developed and emerging nations and politicians have had to take steps to tighten regulatory measures for financial institutions and take a second look at the pay, emoluments and severance packages of top executives of financial service providers. In Greece and Italy the imposition of austerity has seen protestors on the streets.

The Arab Spring was a similar movement, in which the bubble of impunity which many a dictator in North Africa and West Asia thought they enjoyed was directly challenged by ordinary people joining in mass protests. International conspiracy is the inevitable reaction of the targeted political class!

President Morsi is now facing the people’s anger in Egypt; there were mass demonstrations in Tahrir Square calling for his resignation on the first anniversary of his Muslim Brotherhood rule. The Egyptian Army has issued a statement calling for a political solution, threatening an alternative of a military ‘Road Map’ to stability, in view of the ‘unprecedented expression of anti Morsi political will’. But President Morsi appears to be deaf and the Egyptian Army finally moved.

The Defence Minister announced the suspension of the constitution and that the Head of the Supreme Court would be sworn in as President and a technocratic government would be installed to conduct a presidential election.

Italians and Spaniards are also demonstrating against austerity. In London a few months ago, alienated young people went on a riotous looting binge. Even in China, at places like Tibet, Wuhan and Xiang, ordinary people demonstrate to oppose the Communist Party’s local satraps’ bullying and corruption.

The fact that ordinary simple people have become totally fed up with third rate governance, gross inequality, impunity, and violations of law and order by those exercising power and decided to protest in genuine concern for protection and preservation of their basic rights does not seem to enter the mindset of the political class.

Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, until very recently, we had the absolute impunity of the elected political classes. Such persons, even on a murder and sexual assault charge, assaulting members of the public, military and police officers, were allowed to be out on bail and continue with their pubic functions. I need not detail out the examples, readers know them well. In one case the British High Commission in Colombo has stated that it is deeply disappointed that although 18 months have elapsed after one such incident, no trial proceedings have commenced. The accused out on bail have been accused of allegedly intimidating witnesses and the trial has been transferred to Colombo.

People know these cases well; they are all in the public domain, albeit off the formal controlled media. However the straw that broke the camel’s back was when one elected politician made a female school teacher kneel in front of him and apologise for disciplining his offspring.

Due to the public anger expressed over this issue, through demonstrations and through the social media, the elected politician was forced to resign from public office and arrested and jailed. He has just been released on bail, and reportedly given a public welcome!

Shortly thereafter the son of another elected politician allegedly assaulted the principal of his school. The politician moved fast in damage control, was quick to have the boy worship the principal and all the teachers in the school and apologise, and removed the boy from the school. This was all shown on prime time TV!
So, finally, even though it is at the lowest level of the political hierarchy, some sort of accountability mechanism has come into play. Of course we have to watch and wait to see whether there is any dilution of the disciplining process in the future over the passage of time.

‘Listening process’ taking root

Readers would remember the workers in the Katunayake EPZ, whose protest stopped the Government’s ill-advised private sector pension plan in its tracks, over the dead body of a young worker. The recent apparent roll back by the Government on the press and media code of conduct, which was announced by a Government functionary (may have been sleep walking and/or talking!), which the Head of State is reported to have subsequently contradicted and declared that the code should have properly originated from among the media itself, rather than a State functionary, seems to be another example of this ‘listening process’ taking root.
Digital communication networks and the media, also the emerging middle class in middle income countries, have had a critical role to play in this process. In all the examples of Brazil, Turkey, Egypt and the Arab Spring, the Occupy Movement, the Lok Pal and anti Rape and Eve Teasing Movement in India, anti austerity, digitalised communicators, especially social media, Google, Blackberry Messaging, Twitter and Facebook were fundamental communicators. Locations of demonstrations, deployment of Riot Police, slogans, news updates, all communicated through these digitalised communication networks. The political class is well aware of this.

Mere control of newspapers, radio and television is no longer sufficient for impunity and an effective repression and suppression of public opinion – as many a West Asian and North African dictator found out to his cost during the Arab Spring. Ergodan of Turkey has pointedly attacked these emerging social media brands. Even locally there have been pronouncements of the dangers, by certain quarters. But paradoxically, senior officials have been using Twitter to conduct a public dialogue on national issues. It seems a classic case of ‘if you cannot beat ’em, join ’em’.

The bottom line is that at the end of the day, at the time of the final reckoning, the political classes have to be responsive to the views of the people. The politicians cannot ride roughshod and impose unpopular policies on the people. Even when all avenues of expression are controlled, sing false hosannas of praise, indulge in what is euphemistically called ‘ass liquery’ and parrot propaganda, the uncontrollable social media and just simply numbers of angry people on the streets, taking on water cannons mixed with pepper spray and tear gas, can and will make a difference.

That age old bogey of the autocratic dictator –‘mass public pressure’ – has been reborn, in new avatar, in an age of un-censorable digital communication. Putting that genie back in the bottle will take some doing. Some fools will still try. They will pay the price. Like President Morsi of Egypt? Democracy will suffer.

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