The massive protests in Turkey and Brazil that have shocked their leaders and the world seem to puzzle everyone.
The press, and some leaders (especially Erdogan in Turkey) seem to be taking the position that “normal” party electoral politics is OK, but protests in the street are not truly democratic, but the work of ‘outsiders’ or ‘enemies.’ They are surprised that the protests in Brazil and Turkey have occurred in ‘democratic’ countries where voting and political parties are now well established.
Yet they have it completely backwards; the protests are a sign of maturing democracy, and a rising middle class that is demanding that its elected leaders pay attention to their views.
In the introduction to my 2003 book, STATES, PARTIES, AND SOCIAL MOVEMENTS: PROTEST AND THE DYNAMICS OF INSTITUTIONAL CHANGE (Cambridge), and in my 2004 article in THEORY AND SOCIETY: “More Social Movements or Fewer? Beyond Political Opportunity Structures to Relational Fields.” Theory and Society 33:3-4, pp. 333-365, I argued that street protests and institutional electoral politics go together, and that mass protests were likely to become more common as electoral democracy spreads. This is because mass protests are an inherent and necessary part of the public issuing demands for mid-course corrections or changes to agendas to their elected governments between elections. This from the abstract to the Theory and Society article:
“…as representative governance spreads, with the conviction by all parties that governments should respond to popular choice, then social movements and protest will also spread, as a normal element of democratic politics.”
Both the Turkish and Brazilian governments had embarked on policies that large portions of the population felt were NOT what they had been elected to pursue; popular protest is the normal response in a democracy when that occurs.
In Turkey, a government that many voted for because it promised to end the authoritarianism of the army, had become intrusive and authoritarian itself — reshaping public space, pushing its religious views, and criticizing behavior it disapproved of (such as consumption of alcohol) in a way that directly attacked the interests of the urban middle and professional classes. It is not surprising that the urban areas turned to protest as the only way to send a message that this was not what they wanted from their government. The plan to bulldoze one of the last green spaces in Istanbul for an Ottoman monument and shopping center was just the last straw.
In Brazil, a government that many voted for because it promised to increase spending on public welfare was caught out over failing to do so. When the government announced that they were building stadiums to host the World Cup, it also promised that public funds would be used for improvements to transport, urban renewal, and public health projects, while private funds would be tapped to build the stadiums. The 12 stadiums being built or refurbished for the Cup will cost roughly $3.3 billion dollars — quite an expenditure in a middle income country where public education and health are still sadly lagging.
And yet–it turned out that the private funds never materialized, and almost all the money being spent on the stadiums is public, financed by the taxpayers. Much of this will just be for the show: Brasilia, which has only a fourth-rate football team that draws few fans, is getting a new half-billion dollar stadium! In a country with already very high taxes and few services for the middle classes, this was deeply aggravating. The hike in bus fares to give still money to the public purse was a final straw, and touched off a widespread protest against corruption, wasteful government spending, and a lack of public services.
The Atlantic summed it up well: “Brazilians are taxed at similar rates as Britons and Germans, but receive far less in return. For paulistanos (residents of São Paulo) making minimum wage, public transportation usage can account for roughly 26 percent of their expenses. Regarding social services, Brazil ranked second-to-last in education quality
in an Economist Intelligence Unit evaluation of 40 countries conducted last year.
Meanwhile, lavish stadiums are being built and infrastructure projects are being undertaken ahead of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, with taxpayers footing the majority of the bill. As a result, some protesters have begun calling for new schools and hospitals to be built to the “FIFA standard,” meaning they should be just as state-of-the-art as the new sports facilities.
So mass protests in both Turkey and Brazil are a straightforward expression of discontent with elected governments that are deviating from what the fast-growing middle class wants to see. So why did they turn violent? The answer in both cases is the same as what drove the now-forgotten 1968 riots in Chicago, in the mature democracy of the United States: Police violence. When police respond to peaceful protest with unexpected force, protestors often feel they have to fight back, leading to escalation. When the populace feels the police are in the wrong, more people join the protests, leading to rapid expansion and often violence, as those of less-than-peaceful disposition take advantage of the disorder to wreak their own havoc.
Eventually the police will restore order (these are after all riot police facing peaceful protestors), but the popular mood will be one of rejecting authority, and reduced legitimacy of the political leadership. A few token concessions will not create peace and acceptance; rather this is the beginning of a major confrontation between governments that have been self-indulgent in pursuing goals they deemed important, without regard for popular needs and desires.
In a mature democracy, protest fills a vital role in allowing the people to issue such chiding and mid-course corrections as needed to keep leaders from becoming over-bearing and governments from going off-course. These protests in Brazil and Turkey should not be seen with dismay, but as evidence that the middle classes are coming into their own and gaining the confidence to confront their governments.
The question now is whether the governments in these countries will recognize this and climb down, or dig in and resist. Erdogan in Turkey seems inclined to take the latter course, while Rousseff in Brazil seems inclined to try to find a solution that will respect the protestors’ demands. Sooner or later, however, the Turkish government will have to come to the same recognition.
So this would suggest that social movements validate the system extant, yes? Part of the “normal” political process…but couldn’t they also be read as a sign of failure of conventional politics and therefore people are forced to go at least somewhat outside the system? And once “outside” the system, is the system called in to question and all best off?