Mass protests in Brazil and halfway around the world in Turkey are the latest manifestations of the coming of age of a politically aware global middle class that, armed with little more than Twitter and Facebook, is demanding greater government accountability, basic rights and a more equitable distribution of resources.
In Brazil, protesters garnered a victory late Tuesday when the lower house of Congress rejected legislation that many feared would have made it harder to prosecute government corruption.
The protests were triggered this month by an increase in bus and metro fares in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, and fueled by public frustration with high taxes, poor public services, huge government spending for the 2014 soccer World Cup and 2016 Olympics, and overall government corruption.
In Turkey, protesters first turned out in May to oppose the government’s plan to redevelop Gezi Park, an urban park next to Istanbul’s Taksim Square. Police responded with a brutal crackdown, and the protests quickly spread to other cities with thousands denouncing what they see as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian style of governing.
Flexing new power
“The emerging middle classes in both Turkey and Brazil are beginning to flex their new power in shaping the policy discourse,” said Terra Lawson-Remer, a researcher for civil society, markets and democracy issues at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Unlike countries such as Greece and Spain where weak economies have brought the unemployed out onto the streets, the discontent in Brazil has been created by strong economic growth. As standards of living have risen, so have expectations. The government’s failure to meet those expectations has resulted in widespread frustration.
Brazilians are not protesting because they want to overthrow a dictator or are angry about massive unemployment. They are upset about the priorities of the government, said Joseph Bateman, an analyst on Brazil at the Washington Office on Latin America.
Over the past decade, Brazil’s economy has grown rapidly, lifting millions out of poverty and creating a larger middle class.
“This middle class expects certain public services to be provided by the government,” Mr. Bateman said.
“But now that the economy is beginning to retract, the government is making big cuts in basic public services. And when [the middle class] sees the government putting a priority on the Olympics and the World Cup and not on education and health, they are upset.”
The Brazilian and Turkish governments have responded very differently to the protests.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, a former leftist guerrilla who was imprisoned and tortured in the 1970s during Brazil’s military dictatorship, has said the protesters are proof of a vibrant democracy and has acknowledged their grievances.