After weeks of anti-government protests, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has doubled down on his claims that a nefarious international plot is behind the unrest gripping his country. The leader has attributed the demonstrations to a whole host of causes (of varying degrees of implausibility) but has now repeatedly pointed to the similarity between Turkey’s protests and those taking place in Brazil as evidence that a global conspiracy is at work. While the political objectives of Erdogan’s claims are more than transparent, he is not the only one drawing parallels between the two situations and questioning their relationship. Without lending Erdogan’s conspiracy theories any credence, it is still clear that the protest movements in both countries share a connection — their aims may have less to do with destabilizing their respective governments than with expressing the shared indignation of a frustrated middle class alienated from national political elites. A class that has, with the globalization of economies, itself become globalized.
While the particulars of each state’s political situation may vary, the sense of grievance — seemingly sparked by small, local issues — runs deep and reflects larger issues that are not unique to either country. What began in Turkey as a sit-in by a small group of environmentalists protesting the planned destruction of a city park, spiraled into massive protests across the country after security forces used aggressive means to disperse the activists. The disproportionate response by police represented for many the authoritarianism of Erdogan’s ruling AKP party and the limitations of the political engagement by ordinary citizens. Similarly, in Brazil, demonstrations initially focused on a public transport fare hike and ballooned into a larger movement protesting broader infrastructural, social, and political issues, including corruption. Like Turkey, protests were galvanized and given fuel by an aggressive, sometimes violent police response. Though Brazil’s president Dilma Roussef has taken a markedly different tone from her Turkish counterpart in her response to demonstrators, protests there are now in their second week and show no sign of losing steam, pointing to the momentum of the movement.
The divide on display between these governments and protesters is evidence of a deeper gulf forming between ruling elites and an emerging middle class in both countries. The very successes of both countries’ development — which have given rise to more educational and economic opportunities outside of the traditional elite — have also fueled demands by citizens for greater political access and enfranchisement. Despite Erdogan and Roussef’s (very different) efforts to address their respective protest situations, the gulf between the political elite and these movements is sure to create space for other political players to potentially capitalize on.
Populist political forces in particular have the most obvious platform to jockey for power and influence given the context. Protesters in both countries have made much of their respective governments’ moves on the global stage accompanied by a blindness towards domestic concerns of citizens. Brazil is currently hosting the Confederations Cup and has a huge roster of major international sporting events coming up, including the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. Turkey is actively pursuing a bid for the 2020 Olympics, along with an aggressive foreign policy. Harnessing resentment against ruling elites while striking a nationalist/populist message has been a highly effective formula for political ascendancy as evidenced by situations as varied as the rise of Peronism in Argentina to more contemporary populist movements such as Jean-Marie LePen’s Front National (FN) in France, the FPÖ in Austria, and UKIP in Britain. UKIP in particular has been successful in tapping into resentment against the effects of Britain’s increased involvement in international institutions, such as the European Union. Party leader Nigel Farage, like LePen and FPÖ leader Jörg Haider before him, has used the anti-E.U. issue alongside populist, nationalist messaging as an effective means of shifting political dynamics and putting increased pressure on the Cameron government.
However, the nature of the class driving the protests in Brazil and Turkey sets them apart from these past populist movements in some fundamental ways. Politically-minded and socially connected, the global middle class has shown itself to be less willing to trade on its national identity than on a broader value for political engagement in the service of increased opportunity and rights. While these protest movements have been populist in character, nationalism has seemed to take a back seat to a message more rooted in a desire for individual rights and more accessible democracy. So while they may share with some of these other populist movements a sense of alienation from the ruling elite, the simultaneously global but individual outlook of participants is distinct from the nationalistic fervor of UKIP and FN. It is also no coincidence that both sets of protests originated in massive urban centers; whether Istanbul or Sao Paulo, the cosmopolitanism of these cities has created the perfect context for this ascendant but frustrated class to articulate their vision for a more equitable society and to connect with activists across national lines. As has been pointed out repeatedly, social media has also played no small part in the mobilization and reaction to these movements (explaining Erdogan’s growing hostility to Twitter in recent weeks), and indeed forms a crucial element in setting apart these contemporary middle-class movements — their connectivity and broader political engagement has allowed them to transcend nationalism while focusing on the specific circumstances of their national situations.
It is this quality, however, that leaves them susceptible to the type of counterattack the Turkish government is currently leveraging. Along with international conspiracy theories, Erdogan’s hyper-nationalistic rhetoric over the course of the protests, coupled with his own populist appeals (primarily directed at his AKP base), represents an attempt to turn the tables on the protest movement. With plenty of evidence of their global character, talk of “foreign agents” among protesters does not require a lot of imagination to hold a glimmer of credibility. Erdogan’s response will prove to be short-sighted however. While security forces may have been successful in dispersing protesters and clearing Taksim Square for the time being, the underlying problems which sparked the protests in Turkey have barely begun to be addressed. (Brazil may have an advantage in this regard: while protests are still raging nationwide, Roussef’s government has pushed through a strict new anti-corruption law, a key demand of protesters). As national boundaries grow more permeable and less meaningful, the use of nationalistic, populist appeals by political elites, unaccompanied by domestic transformations, will grow increasingly impotent in the face of this global middle class — even as its volume increases.