- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The problem at the pump is fast becoming a crisis at the polls as governments around the world face rising popular unrest and violence because of record-high energy prices.

Portuguese fishermen, Indian civil servants and Bolivian construction workers are among the interest groups who have taken to the streets in recent weeks in mass protests over rising fuel costs.

In Tunisia, the government expressed “regret” over the death Friday of a protester shot by security forces during a demonstration in the town of Redeyef, in the heart of the country’s mining region, but vowed to take tough action against further unrest.

“We won’t tolerate any use of violence,” Justice and Human Rights Minister Bechir Tekkari told reporters.

The political tensions are affecting rich and poor countries alike, with popular protests reported in Europe, Latin America, Africa and across much of Asia.

New conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has seen his political honeymoon cut short in part because of sharp criticism of his handling of the energy crisis. A major street protest is planned for Tuesday, and the country’s biggest truckers union authorized a strike over record diesel prices.

Spanish and French fishermen clashed last week with riot police outside the European Union’s headquarters complex in Brussels. At least two cars were overturned in the clashes, and police used water cannons to control the crowd.

In Spain, a growing number of gas stations in Madrid and other regions reported Monday they ran out of fuel, the result of a lengthy strike by truckers protesting higher fuel costs.

In Bolivia and Chile, leftist leaders face similar political headaches, as truck and taxi drivers blockade roads and demand higher government subsidies to offset the higher gas prices.

Populist Bolivian President Evo Morales has stood firm so far against the street protests, which have blocked major highways in the country’s east, west and south. Unhappy construction workers last week drove dump trucks, backhoes and other heavy machinery into the middle of the eastern town of Santa Cruz de la Sierra.

The fuel-price protests closely track a spate of food-price riots that swept the world in the spring, producing a string of deadly clashes and causing at least one government - Haiti - to fall. In both the food and fuel cases, import-dependent governments have infuriated voters when they tried to cut expensive consumer subsidies as food and fuel prices soared.

Economists say the fuel-price rises could prove even more politically toxic, as higher energy prices translate directly into higher prices for food and any other goods that are shipped large distances.

“The explosion in global transport costs has effectively offset all the trade liberalization of the last three decades,” said analysts Jeff Rubin and Benjamin Tal of the Canadian investment banking firm CIBC World Markets Inc.

The fuel unrest has been particularly marked in a number of fast-growing Asian markets that are heavily dependent on foreign oil and gas.

India has been particularly hard-hit, with opposition parties joining with civil servants and public-transport officers in street demonstrations against the government. The Indian government last week allowed gas prices and diesel prices to rise because the cost of subsidizing fuel had become too burdensome.

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