Protests in Turkey and Brazil: The Clash for Power in Polarized Societies

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a June 2012 meeting in Rio de Janeiro. Image: Roberto Stuckert Filho/PR, Blog do Planalto Massive popular protests have swept Turkey and Brazil, two rising regional powers, as millions of people have stood up to demand change from their governments. The movements in Turkey and Brazil share key similarities in that both were caused by an increasing sense of deprivation among a growing middle class and were precipitated by smaller demonstrations. However, there are considerable differences between the countries’ responses. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan chose to antagonize the protesters, while Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff recognized the legitimacy of the protests and gave the protesters’ demands proper attention. Still, the outcomes will be similar in that the leadership of both countries will have to learn how to respond to the demands of their increasingly polarized societies.

In both waves of demonstrations, the spark that led to the collective flame consisted of specific problems that a limited group of people wanted resolved. In Turkey, the protests started as an environmental demonstration in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, one of the only green spaces in the city center. Outraged after police used tear gas and water cannons against a group occupying the park in opposition to the construction of a mall there, Turkish citizens joined in to support the demonstrators, and the protests gradually grew into a large anti-governmental movement. Meanwhile, the Brazilian government’s decision to increase public transport fees in Sao Paulo triggered protests there, which quickly spread from Sao Paulo to other cities, including Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia.

The majority of the demonstrators in both Turkey and Brazil were students and middle-class citizens, two demographics that do not form the main electorate for either Erdogan or Rousseff. A sense of relative deprivation of key rights moved both groups to action and unified the protesters, yet this deprivation looked different to each protester and, thus, there were a number of different protest demands. Often portrayed by the media and political sphere as an unstructured list of protest objectives, this multiplicity of goals distinguished recent demonstration waves—from those in Turkey and Brazil to those in Romania and on Wall Street—from many 20th century movements—such as the Vietnam War protests and India’s Salt Satyagraha—in which participants pursued clear objectives.

In Turkey, most protesters were secular Turks who felt marginalized by Erdogan’s increasingly conservative Islamic policies. While they shared a sense of marginalization, the protesters had numerous demands ranging from women’s rights to environmental regulations. Similarly, in Brazil, the protesters took to the street mainly out of a growing sense of economic deprivation. While the initial demonstrations immediately led the Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo authorities to reverse the fare increases, these measures did not appease the protesters. In fact, the demonstrators’ targets broadened to include high taxes, corruption, and the $26 billion of public funds allotted for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics that protesters believed should instead be put towards public services.

Turkish and Brazilian leaders had very dissimilar responses to the anti-government movements. Erdogan chose to confront and insult the protesters, dismissing their relevance and calling them chapulers, meaning looters and bums. On the other hand, Rousseff acknowledged the legitimacy of the protesters’ demands. She announced that her government would create a national plan for public transportation, and she proposed a plan before Congress to invest all oil revenue royalties in education and healthcare while also advancing a referendum on political reform. Yet instead of appeasing the population, her decisions and promises were perceived as a strategy to end the protests and thus fueled public anger.

Ironically, the two politicians’ opposing strategies will nevertheless have similar consequences. Through his actions, Erdogan has practically sealed his own political fate. Even if the current protests do not determine him to resign, the prolonged instability will negatively affect Turkey’s economy for at least the current year. Since economic growth is one of the successes that the current regime boasts, a slowdown might hamper his popularity.

In Brazil, Rousseff’s effort to appease the protesters has only deepened their determination and intensified their demand for her resignation. Whether or not Turkish or Brazilian leaders resign, the protests will bring significant change to both countries as they issue wake-up calls for the leadership to balance the needs of their divided and polarized societies. A major potential problem in both countries is that there would be no strong opposition to take over power if leaders step down.

Both the Turkish and Brazilian protests indicate a growing problem with democracy by revealing a widening disconnect between leading parties that focus on the needs of their own constituencies and an increasingly large part of the population that feels marginalized and unheard. There are several rapidly developing countries like Turkey and Brazil in which the population is polarized into two very distinct and almost numerically equal segments: a liberal middle-class group, which expects progressive decisions from their government, and its counterpart, a conservative and predominantly lower-class group. In Egypt’s first democratic elections in 2011, Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi won by 51 percent of the popular vote, suggesting ample division among the Egyptian population. Two years later, protests leading to Morsi’s deposition erupted in response to his adoption of increasingly Islamist policies. Similarly, since the 2012 Russian elections in which current President Vladimir Putin won with 63 percent of the vote, anti-Putin protests have periodically erupted. An estimated 10,000 to 15,000 protesters participated in last month’s anti-Putin demonstration in Russia.

In Turkey, Brazil, and other countries, there is no longer a majority and a minority. Instead, there are two almost equally sized groups fighting to control the direction of their countries’ future. In the upcoming years, governments and parties will have to learn how to balance the interests of polarized societies in order to maintain power and avoid situations of political gridlock, such as the current one in Egypt. Moreover, in the future, people will likely continue to take to the streets to make themselves heard.