Watch Out For The European Spring


It was the first of the European springs, in a year that was marked by popular revolts in the Northern Hemisphere. Portugal’s Revolução Precária (Revolution of the Precarious) featured many of the same characteristics as the Spanish indignados movement that started around a month later, and as Occupy Wall Street, which flared in the North American autumn.

The country’s Público newspaper described the movement as it was born, on 5 February in Lisbon:

"Just like in Tahrir, there aren’t any leaders. The voice that unites them is one of ‘pride’ at the Egyptian Revolution… ‘Anyone who takes heed of the Revolution knows that it isn’t an Islamic revolution: it’s a revolution of the precarious,’ concludes [protestor]Joana Manuel."

By early March, fuelled by Facebook, Twitter and word of mouth, 300,000 young Portuguese were demonstrating in Lisbon — not bad in a country with only 11 million inhabitants. Spain’s El Mundo characterised the mood on 12 March, at the height of the movement:

"’As the precarious, we don’t have freedom’ has been one of the most chanted slogans of the day. The initiative — apolitical, pacifist and secular — was repeated across the country."

The protestors’ ire was directed at austerity cuts, contract and temporary work, youth unemployment and a lack of say over Portugal’s economic policies.

The band who performed at that 12 March, ‘Homens de Luta’ (People of the Struggle), went on to represent Portugal in this year’s Eurovision song contest, bewildering  the rest of Europe with their 70s retro protest kitsch and unintelligible lyrics sung in Portuguese.

Portugal seemed on the verge of a popular revolution which never eventuated. As Spanish online newspaper Suite 101 recalled recently, popular discontent did force a change of government in June.

But — facing huge debts — Pedro Passos Coelho’s centre right Social Democratic Party altered few of its Socialist predecessor’s economic policies, the paper continues. "On the edge of collapse, the country … was obliged to maintain austerity measures, which have only further impoverished its citizens." Coelho’s government, hampered by the Eurozone’s tight fiscal policies and Portugal’s World Bank/ IMF bailout, was forced to cut back further.

In response, unemployment rose still further as public works, health and education were slashed, says Suite 101. And while public protests diminished, other political actors began to agitate. As the Spanish site reports, the association representing Portugal’s military has signalled it’s preparing to get involved in the country’s politics.

Suite 101 reprints some of the Portuguese army’s communiqué:

"Were the people consulted to find out whether the majority was in favour of the debt taken up? Did [the loans]take into account the interests of the people? Did those who lent us this money know that they were mortgaging our future, or were they just focussed on their own interests?"

Stating that they wouldn’t act if the government asked them to help enforce austerity programs, the army declared opposition to a government elected just five months ago.

The Portuguese army’s declaration was broadly welcomed in Spain — despite its history of military-backed dictatorship. It circulated widely via social network sites, and even found an unlikely Spanish backer; namely, the largest force behind the indignados movement, organisers’ network Real Democracia Ya (Real Democracy Now).

"Spanish police and soldiers: TAKE NOTE," blared Real Democracy Now on its Facebook feed just over a week ago.

The rapturous reaction to the Portuguese army’s declaration in Iberia signals how mistrusted elected governments are by wide sections of the European public at the end of 2011.

A year that started with the Tunisian Revolution against Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali — and which was punctuated with more direct popular participation in politics than had been the case for nearly a generation — is coming to an end. And the chorus disavowing politicians, corruption, bankers and economic mismanagement is growing still louder in the final days of 2011.

Indeed, in Tunisia, which set the tone for 2011, the people are still revolting. Little has changed nearly a year after the Tunisian Revolution began on 8 January, argues French weekly Le Point. The magazine revisits the central Tunisian town of M’dhilla, one of the first towns to rise up against Ben Ali in January. Le Point says that M’dhilla was again the "scene of violence" in late November.

The violence began after the results of a selection contest for a local mine, the magazine’s correspondent says. Although working in the fifth biggest phosphorous mine in the world has caused "bad backs, loss of hair and cancer" in the town, "everyone wants to work" in the mine.

That’s because the local unemployment rate is 40 per cent. So, when few of the contest contestants were chosen, residents in M’dhilla rose up, burning the company’s offices.

"Nothing has changed … the practices, the corruption: all of that remain the same," a young lawyer working in M’dhilla tells the magazine. He warns: "If nothing is done, we will burn M’dhilla."

But while democracy seems to have delivered little for Tunisians thus far, those living in still more autocratic countries still desire what North Africans have won this year.

In late 2011, thousands took to the streets of Moscow to protest the outcome of disputed elections held on 4 December. On Sunday, with the largest demonstrations in Russia since Vladimir Putin took power 12 years ago continuing, President Dmitri Medvédev promised an investigation into claims of election rigging, reports Stockholm daily Svenska Dagensbladet.

Whatever their outcomes, the protests suggest Putin may eventually face a Mubarak-style fate, comments Hamburg’s Die Zeit. The paper says the parliamentary election result has revealed that the new, rising middle class of meritocratic businesspeople and state apparatchiks no longer supports Putin. "The global economic crisis has opened their eyes to which reforms are needed," Die Zeit’s Moscow correspondent writes: "Now they are looking for changes: less corruption, more freedom for business, better education and provision of health services."

Yet the model that liberal Russians have always looked to, Western Europe, has never looked more battered than it does right now. European governments will negotiate a treaty inscribing fiscal discipline in their respective constitutions as a result of the latest EU summit on Thursday.

Eurozone nations have also signalled they’re prepared to lend 200 billion euros more to the IMF, whose European debt fund — valued at three hundred billion at present — "wouldn’t be able to come to the rescue of an economy the size of Italy if it failed," according to French business daily Les Echos.

In general, the ongoing efforts to solve the debt crisis by the European Union this year seem only to have undermined investor confidence further. While also undercutting democratic legitimacy: unelected governments were in place in Greece and Italy at year’s end.

And some fear 2012 will bring still more threats to European democracy with it. In an essay on the history of debt published by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in early December, economic historian Michael Hudson argued that the debt crisis would cause political crisis and a transition to autocracy and oligarchy in the West.

Hudson recalls that, for Aristotle, debt was the "most important mechanism" leading to the transition from one political system to another.

To make his argument, he draws on classical Roman historians like Plutarch, writing that struggles between creditors and debtors brought down the ancient Roman republican democracy.

"When Brother Gracchus and his followers tried to reform the credit laws in 133 AD, the reigning class of senators reacted with violence, killing them and opening a century of civil war," he claims.

The civil war, says Hudson, was fought between creditors and "populist leaders, who attempted to win the people to their side by promising debt relief". The conflict was marked by "political assassinations…and was later traced back [by Roman historians]to the intransigence of creditors."

Although there’s unlikely to be a senatorial bloodbath in Brussels next year, yet more financial and political instability is likely. And 2012 is likely to deliver Europeans even more populist demagogues and financial technocrats — plus perhaps one or two charismatic generals.

ABOUT BEST OF THE REST: It’s a big world out there and plenty of commentators and journalists are writing about it but not always in English. And not surprisingly, ideas about big events of the day shift when you move away from the Anglosphere. Best of the Rest is a fortnightly NM feature by Berlin-based journalist Charles McPhedran. Charles reads the news in French, German, Spanish and Portuguese and reports on what the rest of the world is saying about the big stories.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.