It all started inauspiciously.
In Turkey it was the conversion of a park into a mall. In Brazil it was the equivalent of a four peso increase in bus fares. In Indonesia, it was relatively more grave, the withdrawal of a Government subsidy on gas prices. Yet these seemingly inconsequential events triggered riots threatening the stability of government and frightening foreign investors.
While disparate –the protests spanned three nations in three continents with distinct religions and cultures- the riots had commonalities. Unlike in then Eastern Europe and North Africa, the swells were not a reaction to totalitarian regimes. On the contrary, they happened in democratically elected governments with a recent history of improving governance and prospering economies. Brazil and Turkey are investment grade credits.
Under then President Lula and his chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff, Brazil has emerged from years of corrupt and military government to become one of the leading lights in South America. Brazil is to host the World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016.
Turkey is an icon of Islamic secular society, a model for the Arab spring. President Erdogan has instituted social and economic reforms in a nation now recognized as the power broker in the Middle East. Indonesia has instituted better governance to fight corruption.
The authorities were therefore surprised by the vigor and depth of the protests or why they happened at all. They failed to recognize the simmering public discontent whose core was the widening gap in incomes triggered by the very economic progress they were so proud of (The World Bank lists Brazil as the world’s 7th largest economy but in the bottom 10% in income equality). The riots were the emerging market version of last year’s Occupy Wall St. movement in the U.S. and other G-8 nations; whose genesis was also the growing disparity in wealth between the 1% and the 99%. Glaring inequality is not just a Third World phenomenon. We just react to it more violently.
The events in Brazil, Turkey and Indonesia are worth noting because the Philippines bears all the same symptoms. Like them, we have a democratically elected Government, a reformist leadership and a statistically buoyant economy. Unfortunately, like them we also have growing inequality in wealth, corruption and social injustice. Like them our urban centers are increasingly congested and uninhabitable. The Turks were angered by the conversion of a public parc, Filipinos are angered by the overbuilding, traffic and flooding in our cities. Can the riots of Istambul, Sao Paulo and Jakarta become the riots of Manila?
People say we are different. In PNoy we have a truly popular leader. Well so was Brazilian President Rousseff, a former guerilla who was imprisoned by the military dictatorship. Turkish President Erdogan was similarly elected with a large mandate and by all accounts has instituted real reforms even though his ways are now deemed autocratic.
People say we have a higher threshold of patience and pain. Well even Filipino anger has its limits. As elsewhere, there are tectonic shifts under the seeming layer of social placidness in our country. These undercurrents are masked by the glowing economic numbers and praises of credit rating agencies. Yet the troubling signs are there, be it in our worsening unemployment and underemployment, in the marked increase in those below the poverty line, and in the collapse of our urban infrastructure. It is seen in the eyes of daily commuters as they struggle to earn a less than decent livelihood.
PNoy must not be lulled into nirvana by the glowing reports of his Cabinet officials seeking his benediction or foreign investors singing his glory. Ensconced in the comfort of Malacanang it is easy to believe all is well in the Middle Kingdom when it is not.
Corruption is still ever so present in the lower levels of Government, in our judicial system and in our politics. The rot in our pork barrel system, for one, is increasingly harder to swallow even as we struggle to pay the taxes to support it. The President himself will not be spared as the stench rises to the top. The Opposition, for one, will see to that particularly as we approach 2016.
What could spark a social flare-up in our country? Like in Brazil, Turkey and Indonesia it could be a small thing probably emanating in the cities where economic disparities are most evident. It could be the higher water, electricity and transport fares that have been announced, a spike in prices of basic commodities (spurred by the weakening peso), or a breakdown in public services.
Whatever it is, if events elsewhere are a guide, it will be unexpected and seemingly insignificant, the proverbial straw on the camel’s back.