For governments right and left, a season of discontent, Latest Views News - The New Paper
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For governments right and left, a season of discontent

This article is more than 12 months old

It doesn't matter if they live in democratic or authoritarian countries, the haves and have-littles regard each other with contempt

Democratic governments are rarely popular for extended periods, and often have to scrape by with low polls, noisy demonstrations and constant pressure from the media.

And though authoritarian regimes can squash dissent and muzzle the news, they too face rising discontent. These patterns aren't new, but now they happen as administrations are under increasing, and new, pressures - and the challenge of recession looms.

In the democratic world, France is the present exhibit A. Some 300,000 of its citizens wearing yellow safety jackets came out in force this month to protest against quite hefty fuel price rises.

French President Emmanuel Macron is presently held in low esteem. A poll this month showed the candidate he beat, Ms Marine Le Pen of the right-wing National Rally is two points above him in voting intentions for the European parliament elections next May.

Many of the French protesters are from rural areas and small towns, where public transport is scanty. The protests often underscore the theme that the centrist Macron is the "president of the rich," unworried by several rises in fuel prices - measures the government says are designed to prompt a shift to more environmentally friendly vehicles.

Faced with the choice between cleaner air or lower prices, the protesters choose the latter - and at least one poll shows that 73 per cent of the country supports them.

Where there is some space for protests in authoritarian states, people use it - often, too, manifesting a determination to protect living standards.

In Russia, "trust" in President Vladimir Putin has sunk to 39 per cent. "Approval" of the president is higher, at 67 per cent in September, though a drop from 82 per cent six months earlier.

The major reason is another sharp rise - this time in Russia's retirement age, from 60 to 65 for men and 55 to 60 for women. As Mr Macron can point to his once-popular pledge to run a "green" government, so Mr Putin can show that the plunging population of Russia has left too few economically active workers supporting too many retirees. But still they come on to the streets.

In China, President Xi Jinping continues to ensure that control is as total as possible. Growth is still over 6 per cent - but that is significantly lower than in the past several years, and is still falling.

Mr Xi seems to be anticipating unrest as budgets are cut and is raising defences ahead of time. Economic slowdowns always have social and political consequences, sometimes violent. A new recessionary period is confidently predicted, and probably soon. The Economist noted last month that "the IMF thinks growth will slow this year in every other (than the US) big advanced economy. And emerging markets are in trouble".

When that happens, countries both free and unfree are likely to struggle to contain the effects.

The rise of populism exacerbates this. Populists don't just introduce tougher immigration rules and prompt revolt against liberal institutions; they give shape and organisation to deep chasms in both rich and emerging economies.

In Brazil, as in France, the United States, Italy, the UK and beyond, the haves and have-littles regard each other with mutual incomprehension, often with contempt. Populism's best energy comes from a refusal to acquiesce in the inequities of the world - once a motor force of the left, more often now found on the right.

Nor will these social chasms be filled, even where populist administrations fail. The distance is not just between the parties, but among the citizens - one which will only get larger when recession comes.

Commentators, scholars and politicians call for new beginnings, new parties, new policies. But the required trust doesn't exist for broad, radical, cross-community action in democracies.

And in authoritarian societies, repression will have to be ratcheted up to heights we have not been recently used to seeing, to keep a clamp on protest. Failing a recovery of trust, real trouble will come. - REUTERS

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