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Pure Onsense

Occupy The World

Scott Zuke

(7/2013) The Occupy Wall Street movement feels like a long, long time ago now. The protest camps have long been removed from New York's Zuccotti Park and D.C.'s McPherson Square, although the "99%" rallying cry is still heard from time to time. The movement may have sealed its own fate when it defined itself as a leaderless, multi-issue protest, resulting in a lack of focus and, ultimately, irrelevancy (No one has even updated Occupy D.C.'s Wikipedia page to note that it's been gone for well over a year). Its most enduring legacy appears to be the #Occupy hashtag on Twitter that is often quickly adopted by youth-led protests that pop up around the globe.

One recent entrant, #OccupyGezi, rose to prominence on Twitter to label an outbreak of protests in Istanbul, Turkey, that quickly spread to the country's other major cities in June. In late May a small group of protesters gathered in Gezi Park to rally against government plans to build a shopping mall on top of one of the city's few green spaces. After an excessively forceful response by police, more people came out to the nearby Taksim Square in support of the protesters, escalating into a large scale movement voicing grievances against the Turkish government and its Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. After twelve days of the protest, the Square was raided by riot police firing rubber bullets, water cannons, and teargas to disperse the crowd.

Meanwhile in the Western hemisphere, Brazil faced its largest protests in decades as 1 million citizens took to the streets of several cities with a range of complaints including government corruption, poor public services, high taxes, and excessive government spending on preparations for hosting next year's World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. In true 'Occupy' style, the movement is leaderless and has no clear set of demands. Like the demonstrations in Turkey, Brazil's revolt began with an isolated protest (in this case, against an increase in city bus fares) that sparked something much larger after police intervened with excessive force.

If you've been following international news the last few years, a couple of unrelated protests on separate continents hardly raises an eyebrow, especially since they're more in the mold of the inconsequential Occupy movement than the Arab Spring protests that shook up the Middle East. But what makes these cases interesting is that both countries are fairly successful democracies with strong economies and popular elected leaders.

In a piece about Turkey that could just as well apply to Brazil, William Dobson writes for Slate, "In the last two years, we have become so accustomed to seeing people rise up against their governments (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, the list goes on) that we expect them to share the same goal—toppling their government. But that’s not what most of the people in Taksim Square were clamoring for. They are in no hurry to throw out the system. The truth is that as countries go the system in Turkey has worked pretty well."

Turkey has drawn international praise over the past decade as Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (Known by its Turkish acronym, AKP) have enacted successful policies that have earned decisive reelections and approval ratings well above 50%. Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff was just elected in 2010 and is expected to be a strong favorite for reelection in a country that continues to display a vibrant and innovative participatory democracy.

Where the similarities between the two countries and the recent protests break down, however, is in the personalities and responses of their elected leaders. Brazil's President Rousseff responded sympathetically to the protesters, acknowledging their grievances and vowing to meet with representatives to discuss reform options. Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan, on the other hand, labeled protesters as terrorists and thugs, blamed them for hurting the economy, and vowed to counter demonstrations with even larger crowds of his own supporters.

Turkey and Brazil demonstrate how democracy is not a single, easily definable concept, but rather comes in different strengths and varieties. Brazil's "participatory democracy" gives citizens ample opportunity to voice concerns even between election cycles. Although still widely popular, Rousseff could face stiff competition in the next election if she fails to show an adequate response to the protests.

Erdogan, on the other hand, has little to fear from the demonstrations, and observes a strict "majoritarian" view of democracy. Under this system, citizens get to vote in free elections, but that's where their invitation to participate ends. The winner of the election leads the country as he sees fit, without regard for minority interests, and Erdogan has been in power so long that he and the AKP have drifted closer to authoritarian style rule. Despite promising to uphold Turkey's secular laws, Erdogan, a devout Muslim, has recently begun invading peoples' private lives by passing restrictions on alcohol consumption and arguing that women should bear at least three children. Dobson argues that Erdogan is the authoritarian equivalent of a rock star, even more successful than the late Hugo Chavez in that he has taken on the role of dictator while also winning international acclaim for his democratic reforms and economic policy successes.

It's too early to close the book (or finalize the Wikipedia pages) on "Occupy Gezi" and "Occupy Brazil," but already they may tell us something about democracy in the United States, and why its own Occupy movement failed. Our democratic republican form of government is certainly more majoritarian in nature than Brazil's, or most countries' with a parliamentary form of government, for that matter. Politicians here can, to an extent, ignore protest movements, particularly those that refuse to produce leaders who can seek to build influence within the two-party system. However, unlike Turkey, civic participation extends beyond just voting every couple of years, and we have two (some will say 'arguably') viable choices in parties. A question worth asking, then, will be whether the U.S.'s middle-ground position on this democracy spectrum is the most desirable style of governance.

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