Protests in Brazil and Turkey: Not yet social movements

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

Reasons for demonstrating in Turkey
Own figure. Data source: Konda.

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

Reasons for demonstrating in Brazil
Own figure. Data source: Ibope.

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.

Education of the demonstrators in Turkey
Own figure. Data source: Konda.
Education of the demonstrators in Brazil
Own figure. Data source: Ibope and The Smoke-Filled Room.

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.

9 thoughts on “Protests in Brazil and Turkey: Not yet social movements

  1. Is this the right question to ask? Could it be that they want to achieve very different things? It sounds to me like asking at a big concert “what song the audience would like to hear next”.

  2. Oops. Bloquote fail. I try again without html:

    “What I’m more puzzled about is what the demonstrators are actually seeking to achieve.”

    Is this the right question to ask? Could it be that they want to achieve very different things? It sounds to me like asking at a big concert “what song the audience would like to hear next”

    1. Ali, what I tried to do in this blog post is, on the one hand, to appropriately portray the protests and their respective backgrounds. I was especially concerned with the motivations and rationales. So yes, they obviously want to achieve very different things in their respective contexts.
      On the other hand, I am wondering what is linking these events. I’m aware of the fact that I am already asserting that there is some link between these movements. But these are similar events at a similar point in time in somewhat contiguous context (not just geographically speaking). Can this really be merely coincidental? I suppose not. So what do these movements share? Is there more to it than the outburst of local discontent? Hence, I am wondering about similarities in ideas and ideologies that are driving these movements. Maybe it’s all based on the occupy movement. Maybe not. But I would like to know what it is that is driving the discontent of young, wealthy, educated with their respective governments / political elites. And is there an alternative plan? As it is nicely put here:

      You can call a demonstration on facebook, but you cannot hammer out a joint ideology that way. But, as Lenin once remarked, without a political ideology there is no political action. And he was an expert on the art of revolution.
      There is a great danger that all these huge demonstrations will fade away some day – Zeitgeist again – without leaving anything behind, except some memories.”

      (from the blog post I just mentioned in reaction Mathis’ comment)

      So, whether this is the *right* question to ask is debatable. It is, however, a question that should be asked. There may not be an easy answer to that or just no relationship, but this is also a finding.

  3. Hi,
    I was in the meeting yesterday and I enjoyed the presentations and debate. Just wanted to make a point in regards with the title of this entry, which questions that the protest movements in Turkey and Brazil can be called “social movements” because they haven’t brought about social change, so far. I just disagree with that. They are social movements according to most standard definitions of the concept. Social movements are a variety of expression of political conflict, like civil wars, revolutions, institutionalized politics, lobbying, etc. Whether they will achieve something over the long run, is something yet to be seen and it’s too soon to assess. But presence or absence of outcomes (change, proclaimed or indirect) do not alter the fact. There are social movements with little outcomes, others with a lot of effects.

    best, Cesar

    1. Cesar, thanks for the reply and for making the point about change / achievements / outcomes. I agree with you for several reasons that outcomes are yet to be seen and that we then can discuss whether there is an impact – be it societal, social, or policy change. However, I do not use the terms “change” or “outcome” in this blog post. My arguments for not yet treating these protests as social movements are about a) sustainability of these protests / movements and b) internal organization or what others may call a division of labor. Both has yet to be proven over a somewhat longer period of time in order to speak of social movements.

  4. Hi, nice piece! The only thing that I need to second you here is regards the involvement of LGBT in Brazilian’s case. This group is highly active and organizes several events in Brazil, mainly the so called Parada Gay. However, unfortunately, Brazil as a whole is still very conservative and homophobic, so I don’t really see the LGBT as a “leading point” in these protests. I’m sure that there were LGBT representatives on the streets, but not necessarily lifting up their flags or organizing any specific manifestation. By the way, something that characterizes Brazilian’s protests is the fact that there were no specific organization or political party coordinating the mass events, except (and as well mentioned on the above text) the Movimento Passe Livre, who actually started the protests. Besides that, Brazilians went down to the streets on their own, invaded the roof top of national Congress and several roads throughout the country. I don’t know about Turkey’s case, but as you well said, “in Brazil, the discontent has a somewhat longer history”. About this “somewhat long history” I wrote something recently and have attached here the link below in case you wish to through.
    Thank you for putting these issues together here. Keep up with the good work!

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