By Paolo von Schirach
June 18, 2013
WASHINGTON – Last year there were mass anti-Putin protests in Moscow. In the last few weeks we have seen huge demonstrations in Istanbul and now more of the same all over Brazil. There is a common thread. People, especially young people, demand good governance. In Russia the issue is a semi-official autocracy. In Turkey it is about an arrogant, self-righteous Prime Minister. In Brazil it is about corruption, incompetence and massive inefficiencies.
People want accountability
Through these massive demonstrations people vent their accumulated frustrations. Rightly or wrongly (but most likely with cause) they perceive that they are governed by a bunch of incompetent and corrupt politicians and bureaucrats who cannot deliver in a decent fashion even elementary services.
In Brazil the spark that ignited the street rebellions in San Paulo and beyond was a rather banal but symbolically significant hike in the cost of bus tickets. People resisted the idea of having to pay more for a basic public service when they read about colossal mismanagement of costly public projects, (many of them currently underway to prepare fr the upcoming Olympic Games and the soccer World Cup). The street rebellions are mostly against lack of accountability, while the general public is forced to pay more.
Protests will end, problems will stay
These mass street protests may not go anywhere. In the end those who hold the keys to the institutions of real power,(police, intelligence services, army), retain an enormous inherent advantage. They can hold on, while the protesters eventually lose heart and go home.
But the eventual defeat suffered by the protesters is no “victory”. The very fact that these protests take place is an indication of ongoing, chronic mismanagement. And chronic mismanagement means rot. If unchecked, mismanagement creates a culture of mistrust between those who govern and those who are governed. The latter feel more like victims rather than citizens. As victims they will resort to tricks and subterfuge in order to minimize the damage inflicted upon them by an incompetent and often mean spirited government. Cutting corners, tax avoidance and more become a way of life for people trying to get by.
How can these countries overcome this huge obstacle? Hard to say. It is easy to proclaim at elections time strict adherence to “values” and “the highest ethical standards”. It is quite difficult to create a political culture of “service to the public”. This would imply making those in government and the functionaries that operate the machinery of government really believe that they are indeed “accountable”; and that public service is a privilege and not a sinecure. A government job should be viewed as an opportunity to do good, not as a chance to help oneself with taxpayers funds.
A vibrant democracy requires more than free elections
In the end, one thing is clear. A real, functioning democracy needs true legitimacy. Legitimacy, of course, starts with free and fair elections. But free elections are only the beginning of the process. It is real good governanance that instills confidence and a solid bond of trust between those who govern and the governed.
If people perceive that they have to suffer under a rigged system in which those at the top steal, misuse and waste public money, the government has lost all legitimacy. Hard to have a well functioning, growing society under such conditions. And this is the main reason why so many emerging countries –including the once upon a time promising BRICs– do not graduate to the next level.
They are held back by bad governance and by the culture of mistrust that it feeds.