Brazil and Turkey, two so-called emerging market economies, have been undergoing massive public protests over the last few weeks, protests that erupted simultaneously against the ruling parties in each country. The unrest in both countries was sparked by small protests against relatively minor issues: a hike in public transport fares in Brazil, and a construction proposal in a city park in Turkey. Yet, in both countries, these initial small protests rapidly evolved into nationwide uprisings after being repressed by sheer police violence. Despite the many similarities between the two cases, however, the government responses have diverged. In what follows, I will track the similarities and explain the divergences.
The similarities in the two cases have been striking. These nationwide uprisings were organized as leaderless grassroots movements making broader demands. In Brazil, hundreds of thousands of people protested government corruption, inequality, failing public services, and police brutality. In Turkey, people mainly protested the authoritarian stance and neoliberal policies that the governing Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP) and its leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have increasingly adopted, especially in recent years. In both countries, most of the protestors are young people, and in both cases, the popular movements started among the middle classes and spread into the slums and working class neighborhoods over time.
But there are also differences. In Turkey, the middle class continues to constitute the backbone of the movement, while in Brazil, the working class composition of the uprisings is significantly higher than Turkey. Trade unions declared a one-day general strike, which made sense in Brazil but not in Turkey, where the formal working class is no longer a powerful grassroots political group. Moreover, the strongest unions in Turkey are collaborating widely with the government. Gezi protestors expected much from an attempted general strike, but the leftwing unions who declared it seemed hesitant to undertake it for a while, creating some disappointment among the protestors. The failure of the strike showed the real reason why unions were hesitant: it was not their lack of motivation, but their lack of capacity to meaningfully impact the economy. In Brazil, the power of the Workers Party (PT), Brazil’s governing party, has depended on the constant cooptation of trade unions, granting formal sector workers much greater bargaining power than their Turkish counterparts. In addition, the working class neighborhoods in Turkey are still under the hegemonic influence of Erdoğan, while residents of the favelas in Brazil took to the streets. Their participation contributed to increased concessions by the government, which has felt threatened by the favelas for a long time due to the degree of control exercised in favelas by drug traffickers.
In the Turkish context, it has been the rise of People’s Assemblies that represents the most critical step taken by protestors, one that is likely to leave a permanent impact on Turkish society and politics. After the police evacuated Gezi Park on 15 June, people carried the resistance back to their own neighborhoods, forming assemblies in local parks. These assemblies have been created in almost every district in Istanbul, which has in turn been followed by other cities. These assemblies now function quite well in developing forms of grassroots democracy, something Turkey has been lacking for more than three decades. Brazilians are currently forming similar popular assemblies as well, especially in the capital Brasilia, albeit in a less organized fashion.
In many respects, the uprisings in Turkey and Brazil have assumed an international character. The governments of the two countries have presented two different explanations for this, accompanied by two different strategies of response. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has said that the protest in Brazil is part of a global independent wave of uprisings, which, therefore, is not related directly to the specific actions of the Brazilian government. Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdoğan, on the other hand, resorted to an infamous conspiracy theory, suggesting that it was international finance capital that has attempted to undermine the economic and political success of Brazil and Turkey by organizing a plot. "The same game is now being played over in Brazil," Erdoğan said. "The symbols are the same, the posters are the same, Twitter, Facebook are the same, the international media is the same. They (the protests) are being led from the same center. They are doing their best to achieve in Brazil what they could not achieve in Turkey. It`s the same game, the same trap, the same aim."
In fact, in both Brazil and Turkey, the governments initially tried to appease protesters by addressing the original spark of the protests. In Brazil, this meant reducing an announced fare hike; in Turkey, it led to an agreement to subject the Gezi Park redevelopment plan to judicial scrutiny and even public plebiscite. These concessions proved inadequate at best, as protesters’ grievances concerned a much wider array of issues. Despite the common use of high levels of state violence in both countries to quell the protests, substantial divergences in state response emerged after the initial concessions failed. In particular, Rousseff has approached the protests with a much more conciliatory language than Erdoğan. Rousseff has been ready to give additional concessions and to acknowledge the legitimacy of grievances, unlike the unwavering Erdoğan. For example, the Brazilian government went beyond the reduction in transport fares and announced a political reform plan while praising the democratic sensitivity of the protestors. Meanwhile, Erdoğan has consistently denounced the protestors for acting like vandals.
The roots of these different responses can be traced to two factors: the ideological positions of these two governments, as well as the composition of the protestors in each country. The PT of Brazil emerged as a coalition of social movements that overthrew the military regime of the 1980s. The AKP of Turkey, on the other hand, emerged as a form of passive revolution against the Islamic challenge of the 1990s, a process through which the previous radical elements of the Islamist movement was absorbed into mainstream neoliberal capitalism (for more on this point, see Cihan Tugal’s Passive Revolution). So, despite similar policies based on populism, the PT has turned out to be more like a social democratic party while the AKP has become the champion of conservative neoliberalism.
This has also been reflected in the political strategies used to sustain rapid economic development in each country. Both Brazil and Turkey have displayed high rates of economic growth in the last decade under the PT and AKP governments. Economic growth in both countries has largely depended on the neoliberal policies that these governments successfully implemented without significant resistance. In Brazil, the smooth transition to neoliberalism has been made possible through the leftist cooptation of various grassroots social movements under the hegemony of the governing PT. In Turkey, the AKP has absorbed possibly threatening resistance to neoliberal policies into Islamic populism. But the simultaneous uprisings show the limits of these strategies of accommodation with neoliberalism, particularly because the protests have revealed the degree to which the state in both countries has been transformed into little more than a police apparatus.
Since neither government has translated growing wealth into a democratic and egalitarian form of governance, citizens who now have higher expectations than before challenged this gap by flooding into the streets. It is worth noting that anti-neoliberalism is the most important common ground for the uprisings in Turkey and Brazil. This is more explicit in the Brazilian case and more difficult to grasp in Turkey, where protestors have been calling more loudly for democracy and freedom. Yet, just as in Brazil, city dwellers in Turkey suffer from deepening gentrification, which has expelled people to ever-more-distant peripheries where basic public services and urban infrastructure (such as schools, hospitals, public security, libraries, cinemas etc.) are missing. The most important of these missing services is transportation, as jobs are increasingly concentrated in now-distant central metropolitan areas. The increasing authoritarianism of Erdoğan and the increasing state intervention in the daily lives of ordinary people has been accompanied by a widespread state-sponsored marketization and commodification of nature and social goods, turning Istanbul into a big showroom of construction companies. This has constituted the background for the Gezi uprising, as the middle classes refused to accept any further such commodification.
As a former guerilla fighter, Rousseff has a better sense of how social movements rise and fall and how concessions work effectively for containment. But Erdoğan has insisted on disregarding the accumulated social grievances of the last decade under the AKP’s neoliberal conservatism. More importantly, protestors in Brazil consisted largely of the actual supporters of the PT itself, while the streets in Turkey were crowded by almost all sectors of the society except for AKP supporters. Thus, protestors in Brazil presented a serious challenge for the PT: protests represented the risk of losing electoral support as much as being a security threat. For the Turkish government, by contrast, the security threat presented by the uprisings has been the main challenge. Thus, facing the fact that her supporters had transformed into her protestors, Rousseff had to give concessions to the protestors in order to not to lose support from the electorate (a recent survey by CNT has shown that 84.3 percent of Brazilians approve of the demonstrations).
However, Erdoğan has insistently refused to offer concessions in order not to lose the support of his voters, who constitute the numerical majority. Most of his supporters believe strongly in his charisma and his conspiracy theories, and they would regard any concession as a sign of defeat, which would in turn undermine his image as an undefeatable leader. Therefore, Erdoğan’s insistence on polarizing the society into Gezi supporters versus AKP supporters should be seen as a political strategy to preserve his party’s popular base. While conservative AKP supporters now regard Gezi protestors as a threat to their belated power over the state, Gezi supporters see the AKP as a threat to their lifestyles, freedom, and right to the city. As a result, there is an increasing risk of direct confrontation between AKP and Gezi supporters, perhaps more akin to developments in Egypt.
Ultimately, neither the Brazilian strategy of attempted conciliation nor the Turkish strategy of polarization has worked to successfully contain the uprisings. Rousseff first promised a constitutional assembly and offered political reform, and then presented the option of holding a plebiscite. She also promised to significantly increase healthcare and education expenditures by using new oil revenues. But all of these steps have backfired, as the failure to enact them in the Parliament has further diminished the credibility of the Brazilian president. As such, while Erdoğan has appeared to be “too tough,” Rousseff has been accused of being “too weak” (she has been described as inexperienced and passive even within her own party), an image that was reinforced after she received extensive advice from Lula, the previous leader of the PT. Despite some decline in severity, protests in Brazil continue, especially with the recent participation of trade unions. In Turkey, on the other hand, the irreconcilable attitude of Erdoğan appears to be the main force driving the protests. Whenever Erdoğan makes a “thrilling” speech, people take to the streets.
There are two questions to ask. First, to what extent will the dynamism of these social movements and people’s assemblies be translated into parliamentary representative politics in the face of upcoming elections in both countries? Second, considering the fact that the riots in Turkey have partly inspired the riots in Brazil, can we expect that the sum total of the two uprisings will spiral out into further global unrest, covering other emerging markets? Unfolding events have so far driven us optimistically towards a positive answer to both questions. But we will have to wait at least until the end of this hot summer to figure out what will happen next.