It’s the democracy, stupid

A comparative analysis of recent protests in Brazil and Turkey reveals that the economy is far from the only motor of these social developments. The challenge staring both governments in the face is one of political inclusion.

Nuno Coimbra Mesquita Ozan Aşık
15 August 2013

In 1992, Bill Clinton’s campaign strategist, James Carville, coined the phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid”, emphasizing the importance of the struggling economy issue in the US presidential campaign. It became a catchphrase used in many contexts thereafter, mainly meaning that, at the end of the day, the economy is the core issue that moves people’s concerns. It is not different in the case of mass mobilization in the streets. Whether you are talking about protests in Mediterranean countries amidst the financial crisis in Europe, or public outcry in Egypt, the economy is often cited as the reason why people go out of their way to protest.

In spite of that, the economy is far from the only motor of social developments. Perceived economic growth may not stop people from organizing large, national anti-government protests, nor is the analysis of these public outcries solely from an economic perspective adequate. The cases of recent protests in Brazil and Turkey show that even in relatively stable economic environments, people exhibit discontent about the way their political systems or governments make decisions and carry out policies.

Both countries are reported as economic success stories. In the Turkish case, it is true that the Turkish economy tripled in size from 2002 to 2011, but its biggest weakness, the current account deficit, continues to exist. The AKP, the single-ruling party, implements policies of economic growth dependent on foreign debt and import. As of March 2013, Turkey had an external debt of $350 billion, which has tripled since 2002 when the AKP came to power. The main contribution of the government to the economy, therefore, has been the maintenance of stability, which attracts foreign investment. It is hard to say that the AKP’s economic policies have generated an unprecedented income rise in lower and middle classes. Rather, they have facilitated borrowing through credit cards and loans. Consumption has been growing faster than is sustainable.

This forms a parallel to the Brazilian case, where the country’s growth has been based on financial and credit incentives focused on a few areas of economic activity, such as the automobile industry. The Brazilian economy has started to show some signals of distress, such as an insignificant growth rate and worryingly, growing inflation: in 2012 GDP growth was slightly under 1 per cent. But although neither of these two countries have reached an economic paradise, their economies are also not at a point that would easily explain such a public outcry. If not the economy, what is the problem?

The Gezi protests in Taksim, İstanbul, initially triggered by environmentalist concerns, have transformed into unprecedented civil disobedience against the AKP. The protesters accuse the Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdoğan, of pursuing authoritarian ruling practices in two ways: the containment and subversion of the public space of debate and interference with all aspects of private life.

Therefore, what is at stake in the Gezi protests is not only the privatization of public assets and the demolition of parks and forests but also the perception of Erdoğan’s increasing self-entitlement to decide what to do and how to proceed in state policy. The Turkish Parliament, with its absolute AKP majority, has passed laws giving the government more authority for decision-making by removing the checks and balances provided by autonomous institutions. This signals the centralization and monopolization of power, which has been crystallized in the prospect of a change from the parliamentary regime to a presidential regime under Erdoğan’s leadership. It is not uncommon to come across many secularists, leftists, and atheists who feel excluded under the AKP regime. In fact, the AKP’s politics and the Prime Minister’s rhetoric constantly produce and reproduce the ‘us versus them’ paradigm within the Turkish public.

On the other hand, none of the opposition parties have the position or strength to provide a counterweight. The lack of pluralism in the parliament is perhaps the most challenging problem due to Turkey’s 10 per cent election threshold, which distributes the seats of parties with less than 10 per cent of the total votes to the remainder. Civil society seems to be the only instrument available for checks and balances under the present circumstances. Hence, the movement appears to be calling for a more responsive and accountable government. The protesters do not question the legitimacy of AKP rule and Erdoğan as an elected leader, but his way of making public policies and addressing the public.

Brazil, on the other hand, is not witnessing such a consolidation and monopolization of political power under a single-party rule. However, here too the public outcry is about democracy - if not its existence, its quality. It has become common for political analysts to convey the idea of a crisis of representation in the country. The current system is not able to express people’s preferences adequately and respond to their needs. Although that is almost a truism, what seems at stake is more than simply the government not being able to deliver what people want, but rather the virtual disappearance of the opposition. Democratic systems differ from autocracies largely due to the fact that they possess a channel through which circumstantial minorities can be represented and vocalized and can present themselves competitively in frequent elections.

Brazil’s “Coalition Presidentialism” has long been seen as an institutional design that facilitates governability, avoiding political deadlock. On the other hand, this process has crystallized a system of the prevalence of the executive over the legislative, impairing the ability of the parliament to fulfil its representation role and to act as an accountability tool of the democratic system. There is an overwhelming number of non-ideological, non-programmatic parties, all of which want to be part of the government (no matter what party the President belongs to) not for the purpose of influencing the implementation of policies, but to seek profit.

The opposition parties (Social Democrats, Democrats and PPS) have not only withered, but have become practically voiceless, waiting every four years to unsuccessfully compete for the popular vote. The opposition not only lost the last three presidential elections, but has seen a progressive decrease in their representation in Congress. The three main opposition parties have less than 100 congressmen (out of a total of 513), which makes it the smallest opposition in almost 20 years. More serious than shrinkage in numbers is the virtual disappearance from public debate. Projects proposed by the executive are frequently approved by Congress without a proper debate. Consequently, while the Brazilian government propagates the rhetoric of economic inclusion, the system is failing to provide institutionalized representation channels for the political inclusion of alternative and dissident voices. There is no possibility whatsoever to connect with the common citizen.

When this channel withers, what are left are the streets. Symptomatic of this feeling was the protesters’ rejection of party flags. The sentiment carried not a rejection of the institution of parties themselves (as some claimed) but rather of the existing ones and the way they (don’t) represent themselves.

In Turkey it was an environmental issue that initiated the protests. In Brazil it was a protest against public transportation tariffs. But in both cases these issues only catalyzed feelings of unrest with the respective democratic systems. Indicative of the similarity of what is happening in both countries are the characteristics of demonstrators. According to surveys conducted with the protesters, in Brazil as well as in Turkey, there is a prevalence of young people (around two thirds under 30 years old in both countries), mainly from the middle class (although not exclusively). About half of the respondents in each country had not participated in any protest before. More importantly, in neither country is there strong party sentiment. In Turkey 70% of the respondents do not feel sympathetic to any political party, while 14.7% are indecisive about this matter. In Brazil 83% of protesters do not feel represented by any politician, and 89% by any political party.

The challenge to the governments of both countries, therefore, is that of inclusion. Not an economic one, of which the governments boast and which has more of a rhetorical nature. Including more people in the consumer market, as protests have shown, is insufficient for people’s content with the way their governments and political systems work. In any democracy, there needs to be an institutionalized channel through which people voice their demands and display their dissatisfaction. 11-year single party rule in Turkey and Brazil’s political system and party developments have left out a large proportion of their citizens from the institutionalized spaces of the public sphere. What is at stake is more pluralism and responsiveness, not only in the governments, but in the political system as a whole. There is no complete inclusion if it is not political inclusion. 

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