These days, we are witnessing an interesting number of social upheavals around the world. There is the Arab Spring which has re-awakened the interest in the North African region. We have seen student protests in the streets of London. People went on the streets of Moscow to express their allegations of electoral fraud in 2011. And, to keep in mind, there is the still ongoing civil war in Syria. Very recently, two countries, often referred to as the power houses of their regions, have witnessed the discontent of their populations: Turkey and Brazil.
At a first glance, both cases seem to be different stories. Whereas the Taksim Gezi Park protests seem to be rather spontaneous, the Brazilian protests have deeper and long-lasting roots. So what happened? Are there also similarities? And how can we make sense of these contemporaneous events?1
The Turkish case
In Turkey, it was planned to re-construct Istanbul’s Gezi Park and Taksim Square. This area is one of the last greens spots on the European side of the city. For quite some time now, residents and NGOs have fought for this place and have presented their ideas of how to develop this space. When it was clear that the park will be bulldozed, peaceful demonstrations and sit-ins have been organized. Most observers cherished the creative and inventive modes of protesting. The situation escalated when the police started to intervene. We all know the stories of excessive violence and the use of teargas.2 From that on, ever more people have joined the protests for several more reasons. First, the increasingly conservative orientation of the AKP party, especially after the election victory in 2011, and as a consequence thereof the restriction of freedom rights in Turkey (freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and so on). But protesters also raged against the restrictions on alcohol consumption, the virtual unobtainability of abortion, the enduring refusal of LGBTQ*I rights, and probably many more things.
The Brazilian case
In Brazil, the discontent has a somewhat longer history. One can detect three core groups making up the Brazilian protests. On the one hand, there is the Movimento Passe Livro (Free Fare Movement). They have been present since 2005 and have demanded free transportation in urban areas. Second, the Movimento Contra Corrupção (Anti-Corruption Movement) addresses enormous levels of corruption and embezzlement in Brazil. The movement attained even more attraction as the PEC37 constitutional amendment has been put forward (Proposta de Emenda Constitucional 37/2011). This bill foresees to remove powers from the office of the district attorney and would give more power to the federal police. Yet, this bill is often seen as a cover for corrupt politicians to retain their private gains. The third group is formed by LGBTQ*I groups who fight the increasing conservative legislation. These three groups are flanked by two more general concerns of quality in education and quality in the health sector in general; not to mention several smaller groups that are also actively protesting. All in all, these five factors amount to an impressive set of demands towards local and federal governments.
Comparing the Brazil and Turkey protests
Obviously, these conflicts have their specific local rooting. Yet, I think that we can make out several similarities when it comes to the actual demands and the active participants in these protests.
First, these protests utter their discontent against the ruling elite and increasing gap between people’s interests and the political agenda. Of course, the discontent with the elites does not necessarily lead to mass protests. But we should keep in mind that most of these protests started in smaller, local groups. The anger about several policies and attitudes of the ruling elite accumulated over time and caused the outrage. In addition to all that, the reactions by the police, excessive violence and the use of teargas as well as Prime Minister Erdoğan’s reactions just added ever more fuel to the fire.
Second, they criticize mislead investment policies. When it comes to the protests, the World Cup infrastructure spending or the plans to restructure Taksim Gezi Park are outshining many more local demands. People are sick and tired of investments in ever more follies but want to have access to basic goods. They are demanding a certain level of quality in the health and education sectors.
Based on the data obtained from Konda and Ibope (h/t to Natalia Bueno over at the Smoke-Filled Room) we can also compare the protesting groups. Out of the different categories, we could look at educational background. As you can see, the majority of demonstrators as such are well-educated people and students. They got college or university degrees. This is especially striking given their overall share in the population. Similar number would occur if we would look at employment rates, age, or number of students. In both case, it is the young, well-educated, and somewhat wealthy group that is demanding improvements.
And as most of these younger people use Facebook, Twitter and other social media, we should not forget their impact on the protests. Much has been said about the use of social media in times of protests and we know their positive effects from the Arab Spring cases. Social media help to share insights and pictures and to circumvent state-led media. In the end, this leads to the mobilization of ever more people. It is about informing, increasing awareness, and involving more people.
Not really spontaneous, not yet a social movement
When diving into the messy details, it becomes obvious that protests in both cases did not occur spontaneously. Yet, although these are not spontaneous events, we should still hesitate from speaking of social movements. Social movements are forms of collective action. They make collective claims or challenge the ruling elites, authorities, etc. Nevertheless, what makes them special is the sustained display of what Charles Tilly called WUNC: worthiness, unity, numbers and commitments. They also need some kind of capabilities, internal organization and structures in order to channel their ideas (although we can see some sustainability and organizational background in the Brazilian case). These protests still have more than half way to go until we could vaguely speak of social movements.
What I’m more puzzled about is what the demonstrators are actually seeking to achieve. Local problems had been present before and ever more anger accumulated over time. However, the Brazilian protests have been very successful to get their demands accepted, for instance the reduction of fares of public transport. In Turkey, the construction work at Taksim Gezi Park is at least temporally suspended. But is there more to it?
We should also wonder where these demands come from. What is driving these people to claim some rights and the provision of some public goods in the form of mass protests? What is behind this disillusion with politics? My guess would be that these protests have to deal with a disappointed middle class. One explanation could be that social advancement and upward mobility may not proceed as fast or as successful as people would like it to be. This probably has to do with the disappointment in capitalism as such but also with high and unachievable expectations.
We could also look at the younger generation and the possible disenchantment with their own future. The economic outlook is, at best, okay. The educational systems are overstretched and swamped with work. Freedom rights are treated with contempt. This again leads me to think about the other protests above, for instance the UK higher education protests as well as the riots in East London in 2011.
Basically I’m wondering whether the protests are merely localized versions of the broader occupy movement? And will the protests spread to more countries and regions?
1 I want to thank Bilgin Ayata and Andrea Ribeiro Hoffmann who organized an informal event at the KFG to discuss these issues in an academic environment. I got lots of background information out of this meeting, but the presented views are mine.
2 Fun fact: Did you know where the teargas that had been used in Taksim Gezi Park comes from? Right, from Brazil.