June 24, 2013

Stuck in the Middle: Protests in Brazil and Turkey

Emerging markets, middle powers, whatever term you want to use to describe countries on the relative rise in terms of power, the bottom line is that two of the poster children for the new century are seeing some growing pains. Brazil and Turkey, along with other countries like Indonesia and the Philippines, are growing in terms of both their stock markets and their geopolitical significance. But, as recent events have shown, something is afoot in the middle powers.

Emerging markets, particularly the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and recently South Africa-acronym coined by investment bankers), have seen their growth rates stagnate. Meanwhile, ever since the Arab Spring, it appears that diffusion of the idea of the largely peaceful mass protest has spread to nearby Turkey, and far away Brazil.

But, let’s not make the mistake of assuming that just because protest behavior looks similar, that all the causes are identical. Local matters have gone hand-in-hand with broader socioeconomic and cultural trends in Brazil and Turkey, culminating in the protests.

First, both Brazil and Turkey are democracies, and both countries have become significantly wealthier in the past decade, according to World Bank data. Brazil has one of the highest income inequality rates in the world, while Turkey’s is well above the EU average (though lower than that of the U.S—another issue for another day).

Brazil is a huge country, long seen as one that didn't quite live up to its potential. However, under the presidency of Luiz InĂ¡cio Lula da Silva (“Lula”), Brazil’s up and coming reputation was recognized by international organizations left and right, including FIFA and the IOC, and they were awarded both the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games, the latter ahead of the United States among others. Many Brazilians see the rising prices for public transportation as more than just a price gouge during this year’s Confederations Cup tournament, a practice run for the World Cup, but also as symbolic of a modernizing Brazil that is leaving the vulnerable behind. Yet, Brazil under Lula’s Workers’ Party made great inroads into reducing poverty. The emerging market slowdown has pulled foreign direct investment to other markets, leaving Lula’s successor Dilma Rousseff trying to restart the Brazilian growth machine, control rising prices, continue international exposure, and placate the Party’s shifting socioeconomic base.

Turkey, on the other hand, is seeing a bit more of a culture clash than a structural crisis. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the head of government in what has been described as the model Islamic democracy. Much like the U.S., Turkish civil society is significantly religious; yet, the modern Turkish state is built on an overtly secular platform. This has caused real tension as Erdogan’s reputation for religiosity, combined with a lack of nuance in dealing with dissent highlights cultural polarization in the emerging economy. Turkey weathered the global financial crisis relatively well, as did Brazil, but Turkey has also seen a relative slowdown along with market peers. Finally, Turkey is challenged with rivalries and instability on its borders in a way that isn't true for Brazil currently. This adds pressure to the state and society, as Turkish policy in Syria is not unanimously supported. 

It has long been recognized that the economic development process can lead to social dislocation, strife, and discontent when aspiring rising generations encounter a stagnant, corrupt, or incompetent political system. If this pattern holds, then we can expect to see other emerging market countries to go the way of Brazil and Turkey, if only the right trigger is happened upon by the state and society. My expectation hope is that the democracies involved will end up incorporating the demands of the protesters somewhere into the electoral process without too much backsliding into authoritarianism. However, it is genuinely too early to tell if democracy as a variable mitigates the wide array of outcomes seen in the Arab Spring social movement cases.

1 comment:

  1. Dan, I liked your article very much and agree with everything you mentioned in it. It is also noteworthy that Brazil and Turkey have another commonality. On June 9, 2010, Turkey and Brazil were the only two members of the U.N. Security Council to vote against the imposition of sanctions against Iran.