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Democracy’s Losing the Streetfight

The global appeal of mass street protests is undeniable, but they don’t offer a shortcut to improving democracy, argues Bessma Momani.

By: /
14 August, 2013
Bessma Momani
By: Bessma Momani

Professor at the University of Waterloo’s Balsillie School of International Affairs and a CIGI senior fellow

Should we have democracy on demand?

In Egypt, protestors who have been in the streets for weeks trying to reverse the outcome of June 30 are being dispersed by bulldozers and bullets, and the future of democracy is no more secure than when they first set up camp.  

Spain, Turkey, Brazil, Egypt have experienced forms of democracy on demand. What other country might be next to feel the wrath of people power? In the past few years, TV news cameras have gone from capital to capital to film the anger of people demanding change from their governments. Europeans have taken to the streets to oppose economic austerity policies demanded by the IMF and eurozone powerhouses in exchange for sorely needed money to shore up public finances.

In Turkey, an urban planning issue turned a small green space into a national crisis for a third-term president who was viewed as a populist leader. In Brazil, people poured into the streets to tell their democratically elected president that policy priorities should be transportation, solving inequities, and better education — not flashy international games.

And most recently, Egyptians went into the streets to sanction and endorse a military coup, launched to restore order over a failing economy and undignified presidency. Those who opposed the coup then rallied their forces, staking out squares that are now being targeted by security forces. Getting millions into the streets to call for change can be as easy as having a tweet go viral – ‘meet in the square’ in 140 characters or less. And just one day of unrest, if the conditions are right, can be all that it takes to get a democratically elected government to listen to your demands.

Is this a crisis for democratic rule or a new liberating way to achieve accountability from governments during elected tenures? I’m afraid it’s the former. Before there was a Facebook page for everything, democracy was built on the bargaining of ideas at political party conventions. The exchange of ideas involved lengthy philosophical debates in town halls; political representatives needed to knock on doors to explain their ideological views and answer tough and complex policy questions. Political leaders had to sweat out national debates to prove they were the right person for the top job. Social movements needed to agree on ideological platforms to create political parties.

There are no perfect democracies, and yes there can be elitism, classism, racism, ageism, and sexism that give an advantage to some over others. But there is a reason democracy was built in a way that allowed for a slow and healthy exchange of ideas. Political bargaining was not horse-trading favours as pictured on popular TV dramas. It was about finding compromise on tough issues like “how much control should government have in cultural products and services?” “Should government be a primary investor in public infrastructure?” “Should foreign investment be encouraged?”

A vibrant and healthy democracy was one that created broad-based policies supported by some political consensus, which took hard work and compromise to achieve. Some might argue that people power in the streets of Rio de Janeiro or Cairo is simply a form of populist veto power on a government’s mandate. Why should a nation wait for the completion of an elected leader’s term to demand change? Aren’t these protests just a quasi-referendum on a government’s performance?

Here’s the inherent challenge: how do you measure street protests as an indication of majoritarian will? How do we know that the millions in the streets of Madrid, protesting their government’s spending cuts, represent the view of Spain’s mainstream? The same can be asked of the millions gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. More importantly, are those gathered in protest in agreement on the same alternative policy to that proposed by their government?

The truth is we don’t know. This is why there’s a process of political bargaining and a ballot box. Elections are the only true measure of faith in a government and its policy ideas. Why are these mass protests new? It is because we — the people — live in a hyper-connected reality with information and communication on demand. It is not merely impatience with government, but a quest for immediate accountability that drives these mass demonstrations.

These are inherently good intentions to improve democracy — and they urgently point to the need for a conversation on how to make this system of governance more accountable and responsive to the needs of the people. But this critical discussion can’t and won’t take place in the streets and squares of a capital near you. It is time to realize that there is simply no app for democracy.

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