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.
Much like the protesters in Turkey, most demonstrators in Brazil have jobs and are better educated than the majority of the population.
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.
The Rousseff administration, however, is in a difficult situation, as it faces the challenge of managing an overheated economy and inflation driven largely by global capital movement, Ms. Lawson-Remer said.
In Turkey, the police crackdown on the protesters marked a turning point.
The protests turned into an “expression of frustration with a prime minister who has become increasingly paternalistic and authoritarian,” said Kemal Kirisci, director of the Center on the United States and Europe’s Turkey Project at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
“In an ironic way, [the protests are] a product of the success of this government in helping to develop a stronger middle class, especially the highly educated section of the middle class that lives in the cities. … The government’s failure to hear their voice and the adoption of policies that these people feel are strangling their individualistic liberties,” Mr. Kirisci said.
Mr. Erdogan this week drew comparisons between the protests in Turkey and Brazil.
“The same game is now being played over Brazil,” Mr. Erdogan told supporters in the Black Sea coastal city of Samsun. “The symbols are the same. The posters are the same. Twitter, Facebook are the same. The international media is the same. … It’s the same game, the same trap, the same aim.”
Mr. Erdogan may have compromised on his development plans for Gezi Park by throwing the matter to the courts, but he has been largely dismissive of the protesters.
“The message that is given is ‘If you have any problems, wait until the next election.’” Mr. Kirisci said.
Such an attitude has done little to dent Mr. Erdogan’s popularity.
Mr. Erdogan is popular among Turkey’s more recently urbanized middle class that supports his Justice and Development Party, said Hugh Pope of the Istanbul office of the International Crisis Group. The party “has been an incredibly effective government,” he said.
Mr. Pope described the protests in Istanbul as “happy, spontaneous, humorous” events, and that the participants were “mainly concerned with the way the police was so ruthless in putting down the protests.”
Arab Spring effect
In Turkey’s neighborhood in the past three years, regimes have toppled as they used force to put down the pro-democracy protests of the Arab Spring.
The Arab uprisings are on the minds of leaders in Turkey, but not Brazil, Ms. Lawson-Remer said.
“The current protests suggest a need for a serious reorientation in some of [Turkey’s] economic and political priorities and strategies, but Brazil’s democratic government is not under threat,” Ms. Lawson-Remer said.
“Turkey is a different story. Turkey has seen it’s neighbors totter and fall over the past three years, and Turkey is far from a free democracy, so the regime changes precipitated by mass movements throughout the Middle East three years ago are certainly hanging over both Turkey’s rulers and the protesters there.”
Much as it did in the Arab Spring protests, social media has played a big role in galvanizing the protests in Turkey and Brazil.
In Brazil, protesters have turned out in response to Facebook invitations.
In Turkey, social media has upstaged the mainstream Turkish media, which avoided reporting on the early days of the demonstrations and instead broadcast cooking shows and documentaries on penguins.
“That legacy [of the media] will remain,” Mr. Kirisci said.