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In Kenya, protests against a proposed tax increase in late June resulted in dozens of deaths and a partially scorched Parliament.

Political unrest worldwide is fuelled by high prices and huge debts

PARIS (The Straits Times/ANN) -- Like a globe-spanning tornado that touches down with little predictability, deep economic anxieties are leaving a trail of political turmoil and violence across poor and rich countries alike.
In Kenya, a nation buckling under debt, protests against a proposed tax increase in late June resulted in dozens of deaths, abductions of demonstrators and a partially scorched Parliament.
At the same time in Bolivia, where residents have lined up for petrol because of shortages, a military general led a failed coup attempt, saying the President, a former economist, must “stop impoverishing our country”, just before an armoured truck rammed into the presidential palace.
And in France, after months of road blockades by farmers angry over low wages and rising costs, support for the far-right party surged in the first round of snap parliamentary elections on June 30, bringing its long-taboo brand of nationalist and anti-immigrant politics to the threshold of power.
The causes, context and conditions underlying these disruptions vary widely from country to country. But a common thread is clear: rising inequality, diminished purchasing power and growing anxiety that the next generation will be worse off than this one.
The result is that citizens in many countries who face a grim economic outlook have lost faith in the ability of their governments to cope – and are striking back.
The backlash has often targeted liberal democracy and democratic capitalism, with populist movements springing up on both the left and right.
“An economic malaise and a political malaise are feeding each other,” said Emeritus Professor Nouriel Roubini, an economist at New York University.
In recent months, economic fears have set off protests around the world that have sometimes turned violent, including in high-income countries with stable economies like Poland and Belgium, as well as those struggling with out-of-control debt, like Argentina, Pakistan, Tunisia, Angola and Sri Lanka.
On July 4, Sri Lanka’s President Ranil Wickremesinghe pointed to Kenya and warned: “If we do not establish economic stability in Sri Lanka, we could face similar unrest.”
Even in the US, where the economy has proved resilient, economic anxieties are partly behind the potential return of Donald Trump, who has frequently adopted authoritarian rhetoric. In a recent poll, the largest share of American voters said that the economy was the election’s most important issue.
National elections in more than 60 countries in 2024 have focused attention on the political process, inviting citizens to express their discontent.
Economic problems always have political consequences. Yet economists and analysts say that a chain of events set off by the Covid-19 pandemic created an acute economic crisis in many parts of the planet, laying the groundwork for the civil unrest that is blooming now.
The pandemic halted commerce, erased incomes and created supply chain chaos that caused shortages of everything from semiconductors to trainers. Later, as life returned to normal, factories and retailers were unable to match the pent-up demand, boosting prices.
Central banks tried to rein in inflation by increasing interest rates, which in turn squeezed businesses and families even more.
While inflation has eased, the damage has been done. Prices remain high and, in some places, the cost of bread, eggs, cooking oil and home heating is two, three or even four times higher than a few years ago.
As usual, the poorest and most vulnerable countries were slammed the hardest.
Governments already strangled by loans they could not afford saw the cost of that debt balloon with the rise in interest rates. In Africa, half of the population lives in nations that spend more on interest payments than they do on health or education. That has left many countries desperate for solutions.


(Latest Update July 8, 2024)

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