Two countries, comparable in terms of their size, influence and economic importance, are dealing with popular outbursts this week, and the contrasting styles say a lot about their ruling parties and their long-term prospects.
Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian Islamist party turned to the riot police immediately, cracked down causing deaths and serious injury, and now has followed up with political arrests. Will trials follow to show that the organizers are traitors being paid by foreign enemies? That would be consistent with Prime Minister Erdogan’s rhetoric since the first day of about the eruptions in Istanbul.
Similarly, Brazil’s surprising mass demonstrations in a half-dozen cities could not have pleased the governing coalition of Dilma Rousseff, the successor to Lula. But her comments on the spontaneous expression of frustration and anger were completely the opposite:
Brazil woke up stronger today, Rousseff said in a televised speech on Tuesday. The size of yesterday's demonstrations shows the energy of our democracy, the strength of the voice of the streets and the civility of our population.
Rousseff comes from a left-wing background and undoubtedly joined plenty of street protests against the Brazilian military dictatorship in her day. So it would have been cynical and hypocritical, though not impossible, for her to have acted like a Turkish pasha. But her remarkable statement shows why Brazilians are considered to be among the world’s best diplomats: instead of taking offense at the anger expressed, she symbolically placed herself at the head of the marches and demonstrations. She almost sounds as if she agrees with the protests—against herself.
No one is reporting so far on the talks taking place within government circles there, but I would bet money that Madame Dilma is communicating urgently to her police captains around the country to stop aggravating the situation by acting like assholes. If you don’t yet know how to control crowds without resorting to arbitrary brutality, I suspect she’s telling them, now’s the time to learn. Nothing will sustain and deepen the protest movement faster than a police overreaction.
Turkey, on the other hand, is heading for a dangerous polarization by all appearances, and while Erdogan may be successful in crushing his youthful antagonists, the long-term costs could be severe. Both countries face similar pools of disgruntled youth and for the same reasons: pharaonic public spending laden with corruption while basic services deteriorate. I don’t know about Turkey, but I suspect the other aspect I witnessed recently in Brazil applies there, too: a sense of powerless over supposedly democratic institutions that are populated by remote elites who don’t care what you think and aren’t shy about letting you know it.
Once the dust settles in Brazil’s major cities, it will be interesting to hear if the appearance of angry mobs has injected some humility into the Brazilian political class and if their tendency to ignore everyone outside the power structure will shift into something more inclusive. Expect more government-NGO dialogues, roundtable discussions with residents about pressing social issues, meet-the-people exercises broadcast on popular radio stations, and the like—while the Turkish prosecutors prepare their cases against ‘violent extremists’ in the pay of the CIA.