Lessons from Turkey and Brazil
The protests in Turkey and Brazil are spreading and turning violent. The exact sparks of the massive demonstrations in the two emerging economies were different, but how they panned out is similar. The four-week anti-government protests in Turkey started off as a peaceful sit-in to protest plans to demolish a park in central Istanbul. Environmentalists and residents began sit-in protests over the city’s plan to remove the park - the last green space in the city center - and replace it with a shopping mall as a part of a renovation of Taksim Square. In Brazil, the largest anti-government protests the country has seen in two decades were triggered by a hike in bus and other transportation fares in urban cities. Those protests were joined by millions frustrated with wealth inequalities in Latin America’s largest economy.
Protests spread and got worse in the usual pattern. Police and law enforcement authorities responded with tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowds, which only enraged demonstrators further. Protests turned violent as civilians clashed with riot police. As casualties increased, protests stretched across the nation. News of physical clashes and information on demonstrations were reported live on social media networks like Facebook and Twitter, adding further numbers to the crowds of infuriated protestors.
The anti-government movement in Turkey was a reaction to the semi-authoritarian ways of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been in elected office for the past 11 years. Behind the Brazil protests is a mixture of frustration and resentment about governance, political corruption and incompetence, including rising inflation and poor public services. Both countries have enjoyed economic booms in the recent decade thanks to reforms. Income levels rose along with their status in the world. Turkey was lauded for setting an example of an Islamic democracy and served as a bridge among Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Underscoring its newfound status, Brazil was chosen to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.
The protests in the two countries are good examples of how small incidents can suddenly turn into national disasters, amplified by digital technology, if individuals are unhappy about living standards, political high-handedness or the political status quo, regardless of outward economic progress. Erdogan’s policy of reviving old Islamic traditions with new regulations on individual freedom prompted strong protests from the youth and intellectual community. The Brazilians have been growing frustrated with a widening wealth gap as the benefits of rapid economic progress largely went to a small group of elite, while the huddled masses were stuck with poor public services in education, transportation and health care.
Responses to the protests have been starkly different. The Erdogan administration fulminates about conspiracies against the government and is criticized for use of excessive force to rein in the unrest. The popular and powerful prime minister wants to exercise his leadership to defy protests. But if he wants to retain broad support, he should concede to the public’s anger and change his leadership style. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, a former activist, met protestors and showed a sense of understanding. She said she was proud of her people for making a stand for democracy. Yet her government cannot easily come up with solutions to the unrest.
In South Korea, our political sphere is once again bifurcated over the National Intelligence Service’ involvement in the last presidential election campaign and its release of a secret dialogue during a 2007 summit in Pyongyang between President Roh Moo-hyun and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
Some fear the two incidents could lead to protests. The president must step up and offer reform plans to prevent the intelligence authorities’ involvement in politics. Otherwise, the kind of unrest we see in Turkey and Brazil may no longer be foreign news.
* The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Bae Myung-bok