A Wind of Change – Iceland, Brazil, UK, France, USA
During the past weeks, there has been a democratic wind blowing across the world. Several countries have taken to protest and direct action to demand more democracy. In Iceland the Prime Minister has left office, in Brazil the lower chamber voted to impeach the Prime Minister, and in the UK demands are being made for the Prime Minister to resign. Old politics is meeting a more connected and demanding public.
Pirate Times has reported extensively on the events in Iceland. In brief, the former Prime Minister, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, was discovered to have a secret offshore company, which he shared with his wife. This company owned substantial investments in the Icelandic banks that failed and had to be saved. The Prime Minister was a main negotiator representing the creditors against the banks, but he failed to disclose his personal and business interest in the negotiation. Following the revelation in the Panama Papers, one of the largest per capita protests the world has ever seen resulted in the resignation of the Prime Minister, leaving confusion in the wake of his departure.
Amid the political turmoil in Iceland there is one enduring point of stability. The Icelandic President, who has led the country for almost 20 years, has announced that he will run in the elections to stay as leader for another four years. It remains to be seen whether the Icelandic population wants the old to remain or whether it is ready for some change in leadership.
Dilma Rousseff, the president of Brazil, might be impeached from her position. She was accused of ‘having tampered with public accounts to help get herself re-elected’. However corruption is widespread in Brazil. According to Transparency International:
In Brazil 81 per cent of those surveyed in 2013 considered political parties corrupt or extremely corrupt and eight out of ten agreed with the statement that ordinary people can make a difference in the fight against corruption.
So this is not the primary reason she is being impeached.
Coupled with ‘the worst corruption scandal in the country’s history’, Rousseff has been president during the ‘biggest economic crisis in Brazil since the Great Depression’. In a recent poll she received a mere 10% approval rating. Following the protests against the planned Olympics in Brazil the public has increasingly turned towards protesting against the government. Earlier this month, an estimated three million people took to the streets across the country in anti-Rousseff demonstrations, which were reported to be larger than the protests in 1984 demanding elections and an end of the country’s military dictatorship.
If Brazil had a parliamentary system, Rousseff would have been forced out of government by a no confidence vote several months ago. This is why she needs to be impeached. The lower house has voted overwhelmingly to impeach Rousseff. In May, the Senate may vote on the impeachment and, if that happens, she would be suspended for 180 days while the affair is being investigated.
Tinoco, from Pirate Party Brazil, says that the Icelandic lesson is a good one but not a magic formula for Brazil:
To explore new, early general elections in Brazil would be be costly, counterproductive and inefficient (in many ways) for our young democracy. We must, rather, gain strength and democratically organize an agenda that reflects our needs, within our reality, to consolidate necessary changes that the current government is unable to perform. Therefore, the Icelandic lesson is valid and a valuable help to understand our present and our past, as well as to develop future strategies. However, it should not be taken as a magic formula to replicate in our context, without an evaluation and deeper criticism on our situation.
In London, protesters have gathered to demand that the Tory government ends austerity immediately. According to the Standard, there were 50,000 people protesting on the streets of London on Saturday. The Independent reports that there might have been as many as 150,000. The protest has been described as ‘probably the biggest demonstration ever’ in London.
After the Panama Papers’ revelation of an offshore account owned by David Cameron’s father, there were calls for his resignation. However, the People’s Assembly is primarily focused on four demands:
- Health – end the Government’s spending cuts and the alleged privatization of the NHS
- Homes – protect social housing and put in proper rent controls
- Jobs – bring in a universal living wage and scrap the Trade Union Bill
- Education – end student tuition fees and the ‘commercialization of education’
We’re not saying that Cameron is toast but he’s starting to resemble a slice of bread that has been browned by exposure to radiant heat.
Similar to previous movements, such as the Indignados movement in Spain, and the Occupy movement that started in the USA and expanded worldwide, the French have started a protest movement called ‘Nuit Debout’ (which roughly translates as ‘standing up at night’). The protests began when the government extended its ‘state of emergency’ (enacted after the Paris bombings) for an additional three months. However, the main impetus for the ‘Nuit Debout’ movement came on March 31st, when several hundred thousand people across the country protested against government reforms that make it easier for companies to lay off their employees and relax the strict laws on the 35hr working week.
The government reforms were, according to the government, designed to create more jobs for young people and help reduce the high unemployment rate of 10% (26% for youth). This move to weaken worker protection was not something the French people were going to take lying down – especially since it came from a socialist government. The people felt that this was a major betrayal, and popular support for the government party has since dropped spectacularly in recent polls.
You have to understand what this movement is about and what it wants. It encompasses many small movements. What unites them all, and one reason for the commotion, is their criticism of the elite, along the lines of, “Those at the top are looking after their own interests; they do not listen to us.” The feeling of not being represented and not being taken seriously is widespread. Furthermore, the majority of French people are against Francois Hollande running as Socialist Party candidate in the next presidential election
– Claire Demesmay (French Politial Scientist)
On the night following the March 31st protests against the reforms, some people decided to gather at Place de la République to continue the protests. Since then, there have been gatherings every night of a few hundred to, sometimes, a few thousand people demanding political and economic change. The reforms that the government proposed to help reduce youth unemployment have backfired, leading to large protests consisting mainly of the young but spanning all sections of society.
Thanks to the initiators of ‘Nuit Debout’, the frame is ready. Deliberative democracy is in fact the best process to conclude a manifesto without excluding demonstrators. […] It is neither more nor less, a race against time. Before it is too late, let us hasten to give content to the container.
In the USA there have been demonstrations to denounce big money in politics. There are a variety of ‘legal’ ways to bribe a politician, including super PACs (a super PAC is a modern breed of political-action committee that is allowed to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money from corporations, unions, individuals and associations to influence the outcome of state and federal elections), lucrative job offers and campaign contributions. The protesters are identifying themselves as ‘Democracy Spring’.
The Democracy Spring effort started in Philadelphia, with several thousand embarking upon a 225km walk to Washington DC to ‘demand Congress take immediate action to end the corruption of big money in our politics and ensure free and fair elections in which every American has an equal voice’.
In total nearly 1,000 people were arrested for protesting last week. Larry Lessig (Harvard Law School professor and former Democratic presidential candidate) was one of the arrested – a new experience for this law professor. The c0-founders of Ben & Jerry, the famous ice-cream brand, were also arrested while protesting against money in politics.
Featured image: Modified from CC-BY-NC, Charlotte Gonzalez