Where protest is likeliest to break out
From anti-austerity movements to middle-class revolts, in rich countries and in poor, social unrest has been on the rise around the world. The reasons for the protests vary. Some are direct responses to economic distress (in Greece and Spain, for example). Others are revolts against dictatorship (especially in the Middle East). A number also express the aspirations of new middle classes in fast-growing emerging markets (whether in Turkey or Brazil). But they share some underlying features.
The common backdrop is the 2008-09 financial crisis and its aftermath. Economic distress is almost a necessary condition for serious social or political instability, but it is not a sufficient one. Declines in income and high unemployment are not always followed by unrest. Only when economic trouble is accompanied by other elements of vulnerability is there a high risk of instability. Such factors include wide income-inequality, poor government, low levels of social provision, ethnic tensions and a history of unrest. Of particular importance in sparking unrest in recent times appears to have been an erosion of trust in governments and institutions: a crisis of democracy.
Trust has been in secular decline throughout the rich world since the 1970s. This trend accelerated and spread after the collapse of communism in 1989. And as opinion polls have documented, it has sped up again since the 2008–09 financial crisis.
The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), a sister company of The Economist, measures the risk of social unrest in 150 countries around the world. It places a heavy emphasis on institutional and political weaknesses. And recent developments have indeed revealed a deep sense of popular dissatisfaction with political elites and institutions in many emerging markets.
The protesters in Turkey in 2013, for example, were dissatisfied with some abrupt decisions by Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government. In Bulgaria, what started off as protests against higher electricity bills turned into generalised anti-government demonstrations complaining of corruption—and led to the fall of the government. Protests have continued.
What to expect in 2014? The recession is now over or has eased in much of the world. Yet political reactions to economic distress have historically come with a lag. Austerity is still on the agenda in 2014 in many countries and this will fuel social unrest.
Restlessness on the rise
According to the EIU’s ratings, 65 countries (43% of the 150) will be at a high or very high risk of social unrest in 2014. For 54 countries the risk of instability is medium and for the remaining 31 countries it is low or very low. Compared with five years ago, 19 more countries are now in the high-risk categories.
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA), southern Europe, the Balkans and the former Soviet countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) are well represented in the high-risk categories: 12 out of 18 MENA states, six of the seven Balkan countries, eight out of the 12 CIS states, five out of six southern European ones. More than 40% of the countries in eastern Europe are in the high-risk categories. This region was hit hard by the financial crisis and also has many of the underlying characteristics associated with unrest. Unsurprisingly, many high-risk countries are in sub-Saharan Africa. But there are also some in Latin America and Asia—including the world’s largest and most successful emerging market, China, where the authorities are perennially nervous about the risk of mass protests.
Laza Kekic: director, country forecasting services, Economist Intelligence Unit