Viewpoint: A new era of democracy

By Kaan Advan, Editorial Board Member
Published January 10, 2012

Last year could be called a great year for democracy. The Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and protests in countries such as Russia, Hungary and Greece all raised some serious issues. The stage is now set for these questions to be addressed in 2012. After a very eventful year in which dictatorships spanning half a century ended, I don’t think 2012 will be a year of resolution. Rather, it will be a year of volatility as nations struggle to find the right path after many successful protests.

The unique thing about the uprisings across the globe is that they were all ignited by a common motive, resentment toward government. Millions of people in the Middle East realized that their authoritarian leaders were greatly limiting the people’s power and freedom. People in the United States and Europe began to think that economic policy wasn’t representative of everyone. There was a collective unhappiness among the population, which they voiced through protests. Not every participant was highly intellectual. Many people were just there to express their feelings about what they thought was wrong.

The Arab Spring was a revolution that almost no one saw coming. Looking at similar historic occurrences can help us predict what will come next. The Arab Spring revolution fell somewhere between the French Revolution and the fall of communism in 1989. Before making comparisons, we should look at what differentiates the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring isn’t much of a nationalistic movement. Rather, it’s a call for equality, the end of corruption and, above all, freedom.

Another difference is that the totalitarian governments in the Middle East had long repressed Islamist groups and parties, decreasing their representation in the political sphere. Now that there isn’t tight control over Islam in politics, people will embrace it as Eastern European countries embraced nationalism after the end of Soviet suppression.

The French Revolution was the French people’s first introduction to democracy. It proved short-lived because it was easy for a charismatic leader, Napoleon, to override the weak democratic control mechanisms and the conscience of the people. Through this, he consolidated power in his hands. In contrast, the peoples of Eastern Europe were well acquainted with democracy by 1989, and successfully established democratic regimes.

Yet today we see more and more attempts by Eastern European political leaders to consolidate power. For example, consider the change of Hungary's constitution. The change needs to be kept in mind when evaluating the Arab Spring. We need to remember that the establishment of democracy is a continuous process. Arabs will not have very efficient democracies, but they took a big step towards the process of becoming a democracy. Even though the regimes will tend to be authoritarian in the near future, in time, democracy will become a value deeply embedded in the conscience of the Arab people.

The Occupy movement in the U.S. and Europe was mostly directed against economic and social inequality. Most importantly, the movement was propelled by the youth. There are two crucial questions as the movement comes to a hiatus, or even an end — will the movement affect policymaking? And will it persuade more youth to vote?

I find it unlikely that the protests will have a considerable impact on policymaking as they are premature and without a solid political basis. For the protests to create incentives or force legislators to change policy, the Occupy movement has to prove its durability and unity. Even this may not be enough.

Just as it's important whether or not the youth will begin to vote more consistently. The answer to this question will determine how widespread the policy effects of the Occupy movement will be. The participation of the youth can bring about change in the long run, but most likely not in 2012 when almost everything will be dominated by the presidential election.

As the U.S. elects its next president, the European Union tries to implement new economic policies and Arab nations strive to build democratic regimes, 2012 will be a year full of ups and downs, speculation and uncertainty. Nonetheless, 2012 marks the beginning of an era in which people highly value democracy and actively struggle to safeguard their rights.

Kaan Avdan is an LSA freshman.