Emerging powers with booming economies, democratically elected leaders and rising influence in the regions around them: In the last years, Turkey and Brazil were often seen as role models. The presidents of these countries, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Dilma Roussev, even developed ambitions on a global level: They joined in a diplomatic attempt to negotiate a deal with Iran on its nuclear program. Vanity projects showed up on the agenda: Brazil hosts the 2014 soccer World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, Turkey’s metropolis Istanbul is a Candidate City for the 2020 Olympics.
Now, all of a sudden, the wind has turned: The streets of both countries have filled with hundreds of thousands of angry demonstrators. Economic prosperity has turned into popular unrest. Many of the demonstrators are those who profited most from their countries’ takeoff: Young, middle-class people. What has happened?
Both governments have shown disregard for their people and signs of arrogance due to their past successes. Erdogan follows an islamic agenda, dismissing legitimate concerns of secular Turks. Rousseff’s Workers’ Party has budgeted billions for the World Cup and the Olympics, while public services such as education and public transportation remain on a very basic level. These are also symptoms of poor democratic development: Democratic control of the governments’s decisions does not take place. Opposition parties are weak in Turkey as well as Brazil, they fail to offer plausible alternatives. The media only offers a one-sided coverage of the protests or even ignores them completely. Turkish and Brazilian journalists fail to fulfill their democratic responsibilities in the current situation.
Both governments have also made a major mistake in their reaction to the protests: They employed violence against the demonstrators instead of listening to their concerns. In Brazil’s largest city Sao Paulo, a peaceful demonstration against higher bus fares was brutally attacked by riot police, using tear gas and rubber bullets. In Turkey, police forces attacked demonstrators on Istanbul’s Taksim Square and in the neighboring Gezi Park with tear gas and stun grenades. It was the police violence that turned the local movements into nationwide protests in both countries.
But what is happening now also offers a chance for the future: The protests might ultimately strengthen democracy in Turkey and Brazil. The people have raised their voices and made clear that they don’t accept every decision of their government. The civil societies in Turkey and Brazil are on the rise. That’s good news.