Streets on Fire: Protests in Turkey and Brazil

The last two months have seen the outburst of mass-scale protests in two emerging economies, Turkey and Brazil. While both countries experienced economic booms that lifted a number of people out of poverty, the protests embody a greater shift towards government accountability and democratic participation.

Though both are widespread, riots in the two countries contain distinct momentums. Prompted by a group of environmentalists, the Turkish demonstrations initially began as a response to the government-backed project that would take down a park to make space for a residential complex in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. The protesters were harshly suppressed by the police with pepper spray and pressurized water, under the order of Turkey’s president, Tayyip Erdogan. The “brutality” agitated further protests in other cities such as Ankara and attracted people with different discontents, turning the riots into a ground battle with the authoritarian regime. Most protesters are of the more liberal, younger generation sharing disappointments ranging from a recent bill restricting consumption and sale of alcohol to the anti-terrorism legislation targeting on Kurd population in the country as well as the big number of journalists in jail.

By contrast, the Brazilian riots were not directed toward specific politicians, but provoked by the frustrations over poor social services, governmental corruption and the large sum of public money pouring into mega-events such as World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. According to CNN, the unrest was mainly backed by the country’s middle class, who is expected to pay one of the highest taxes in the world for disappointing social services. Some experts also suggest that the majority of protesters were more likely to be country’s “strugglers” – those who live above poverty but far away from country’s “income-secure middle class”, as suggested by Nancy Birdsall, the founding president of Center for Global Development. Accordingly, the “struggler” group comprises roughly 40% of the total Brazilian population.

The political contexts

Unlike Brazil, Turkey’s discontent is pointed directly at its President, Erdogan, as he prepares to run for the third term to “rule” the country.

The Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff adopted more diplomatic approach toward the protesters compared to her counterpart in Turkey. After engaging in dialogue with her citizens in a nationwide speech, Rousseff proceeded to push reform through the Brazilian Congress on issues ranging from healthcare, education, oil revenues, public transportation, and more. Rousseff’s remarks have placated the bulk of the protestors, but Brazilians are waiting to see how far she is willing to follow through with her proposals.

On the contrary, President Erdogan refused to back down despite the ongoing protests. He highly praised the “heroism” of the police to crack down “violent” demonstrators after at least four people were killed in the protests without mentioning the victims.

Despite Turkey’s rapid economic growth (8.5% GDP growth in 2011) during his presidency, President Erdogan has alienated himself from liberals with his growingly authoritarian policies. In May, an alcohol-restricted bill was passed by the Erdogan-led Justice and Development (AK) party, prohibiting selling alcohol from 10pm to 6am or putting it on display windows. Critics denounced the bill, which suggests government’s intent to impose Islamic rules over its people.  Further, Turkey has put 49 journalists in jail – the biggest number in individual country around the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. A number of them were accused of linkage to the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), a terrorist group recognized by EU and US.

Civil societies’ reactions

As emerging economies, both countries enjoy vibrant civil societies though governmental restrictions still exist, according to the study of “Philanthropic Freedom” from Center for Global Prosperity at Hudson Institute. The study shows in Brazil, people are allowed to associate freely and organize nonprofits with little barriers at a lower cost. With around 300-thousand private foundations and nonprofits as of 2010, Brazilian CSOs are barely dissolved by the government involuntarily. On the other hand, Turkey’s civil society experiences heavier restrictions such as ban on “acting collectively” unless forming an association. Meanwhile, involuntary dissolution can be also conducted without full transparency. These nations’ approaches to regulating their civil society are parallel to their reactions to the recent protests, with Turkey attempting to control and restrict, while Brazil tries to placate and communicate.

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