The term “democracy” literally means “the rule of the people”. It is a term borrowed from Greek. The Greeks were the first to introduce this system based on all citizens expressing their opinions on important issues like going to war or introducing taxes. Democracy gives the people a series of rights, including the right to protest if they are not happy with the way things are going in the state. Incidentally, Greece was the scene of many massive protests in the last decade – according to some reports, a mass of more than half a million people marched across Athens in May 2010 to protest against the government’s austerity measures.
Some say protests are the telltale sign of something not working right in a country. And there are many problems in many countries, even if we don’t count global issues like the environment, among others. Thus, we’ve seen a surge in protests in 2019, with thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of citizens demanding change – and these were the biggest.
The “Yellow Vests” movement (France)
Seen from the outside, France seems like a country where things go great: it has a strong economy, its tourism flourishes, its wines and foods are excellent. Under the surface, though, there is a lot of tension related to a variety of issues. And these tensions exploded into one of the biggest ongoing protests in Europe of our time.
The “Yellow vests movement” began in October 2018 with protests against the establishment, fighting for economic justice and opposing the wealthy urban elite. This long-running protest was subdivided into “acts” – the “first act”, in November 2018, had more than 300,000 participants. To date, the protests resulted in 10 fatalities, almost 2000 protesters and more than 1000 policepersons injured, and sparked other similar movements in many countries around the world.
The Catalan protests (Catalonia, Spain)
Catalonia is an autonomous community in Spain, with its own history, culture, and language (aside from Spanish, of course). The region has planned to claim its independence from Spain for a long time, and these plans culminated in two referendums on the matter: the one in 2014, which was non-binding, where the overwhelming majority of the voters opted for the region to leave Spain, and the one in 2017, this time a binding one, that was later declared unconstitutional by the Spanish government.
In 2019, nine leaders of the Catalan independence movement were sentenced to between 9 and 13 years in prison for their role in organizing the referendum by the Supreme Court of Spain. This, as you might expect, triggered a massive, violent protest, resulting in hundreds of injuries on both sides, and hundreds of arrests. The protest is ongoing today.
Several Latin American countries
Antisocial government actions, austerity, corruption, and other issues endemic to several Latin American countries have led to a series of major protests erupting in them across 2019. The beginning of the year has seen massive movements erupt in Venezuela, Guatemala, and Haiti, later in Honduras, Guyana, and Argentina, with other movements emerging everywhere from Uruguay to Peru and Bolivia toward the end of the year. Some of these are ongoing to this day.
The image of Russia is not very positive around the world – despite being a democratic state, it is still seen as a country controlled by former Soviet structures and oligarchs. The abusive measures introduced by the authorities ahead of the country’s elections just added more fuel to this fire. Ultimately, the fire led to explosions: protests in the streets, involving anywhere between hundreds and tens of thousands of people, the biggest in the country since 2013.
Finally, the biggest protest we’ve seen in 2019 emerged in one of the most densely populated areas in the world: Hong Kong. The trigger was the introduction of the Fugitive Offenders amendment bill that would have allowed the extradition of criminal fugitives wanted in Taiwan and mainland China. It was seen as an act that would have undermined Hong Kong’s relative autonomy, subjecting its residents and visitors to the legal system of China.
While the true number of protesters is unknown, as the estimates change depending on who you ask (the organizers claim there were more than 2 million participants at the first major protest in July, while the police speak of around 350,000 only). Still, this was perhaps the biggest protest not only in 2019 but in the last decade as well.