Brazil protests in a global trend

The Brazil protests follow those in Turkey and India, all three developing countries with established democracies. While the sparks for the protests differ, the theme is the same: Fix democracy; don't replace it.

AP Photo
A demonstrator shouts during a protest in Sao Paulo, Brazil, June 17. Protesters massed in at least seven cities Monday for another round of demonstrations voicing disgruntlement about life in Brazil.

In recent days, Brazil has joined Turkey and India on a now-familiar path:

A large developing country – one that is already democratic – suddenly erupts in surprising mass protests. Social media help draw crowds quickly. They are mainly young, middle class, and peaceful. The protests focus on different issues – corruption, rising prices, sexual violence, or erosion of liberties. But the constant is this: People want to fix a broken democracy, not replace it.

That’s quite good news. In past decades, protests in poor countries might have led to something else. In Iran of 1979, they led to Islamic theocracy. In Serbia of 1992, they led to extreme ethnic nationalism and wars on neighboring countries. In too many places, protests led to military takeovers.

Fortunately, the recent protests in Brazil, India, and Turkey aren’t about the “isms” of the 20th century, such as communism and fascism. The world’s peoples have struggled hard to make democracy the global norm (except in places like China, Russia, and Arab monarchies).

In the recent democracies of Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, Islamists are mostly on the defensive against popular sentiment in favor of individual liberties and governments with checks and balances on power. The Arab Spring clearly set down those markers for the future of the Middle East.

Brazil’s protests, which started Thursday and spread to at least seven cities, are a good example of this trend. The current president, Dilma Rousseff, even welcomes them: “Peaceful demonstrations are legitimate and part of democracy. It is natural for young people to demonstrate,” she tweeted. Vladimir Putin in Russia or Xi Jinping in China would hardly say such a thing.

Ms. Rousseff knows government at all levels in Brazil needs to better represent the needs of the people. The protests started after local fare hikes on public transport. But they quickly expanded to other issues, such as lavish spending on facilities for the World Cup and Olympics.

Much of this isn’t her fault but rather a result of a corrupt, inefficient, and noninclusive “system” set up to benefit a political elite that relies on patronage and payoffs. Protesters were met with one example of their complaints – excessive police brutality – which has fueled even more outrage.

Turkey has seen a similar pattern since protests began May 28 in Istanbul. People across political classes used a planned destruction of a historical park as an excuse to express resentment at the government’s growing restrictions on the media and personal freedoms. 

India has seen two positive street eruptions since 2011. The first one was over widespread corruption. The second was about sexual violence following a brutal rape in New Delhi. Each resulted in legislators scrambling to respond with new laws.

In all three countries, protesters simply want their faith restored in democratic institutions. With politics corrupted by money, people resort to one of democracy’s self-correcting tools, the right to free assembly. (Twitter and Facebook are facilitators.)

Two similar countries, Mexico and Indonesia, have not seen similar big protests. Both countries have ended one-party rule only within the past 15 years. While their politics is rough, a peaceful rotation of parties in power and a culture of consensus is stronger. In Mexico, a pact between the three main political parties has begun a surprising drive for basic reforms. Indonesia has pushed power away from the capital. In both countries, the ballot box works to keep a public faith in democracy.

In Pakistan, a street protest by lawyers in 2007 against a power grab by a dictatorial leader helped create a “movement politics” that is now a check on strident partisanship. One result: the country’s first peaceful, democratic handover of power between parties this year.

Street protests in developing countries these days are not like the bread riots of the past. They often reflect an embrace of selfless ideals, such as liberties, protection of women, or honesty in bureaucracy. Keeping them peaceful is the hard part. But they cannot be kept at bay.

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