The forces at work in Turkey and Brazil

Photo: Alan Hilditch
Taksim Square - Gezi Park Protests, Istanbul

By Nicky Dempsey

Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Erdogan is reported as saying that the same forces are at work in the protests in his country as in Brazil. In a very fundamental way this is correct.


The world economy is slowing down. World trade is declining with imports to the G7 economies declining now for over a year. As a result prices of commodities have fallen sharply, on average by 20 per cent since mid-2011.

This has led to a juddering halt in the growth of economies dependent on the export of basic commodities, which had enjoyed both rising commodities prices and expanding export volumes.

Brazilian GDP grew by just 0.9 per cent in 2012 and has not picked up momentum since. Growth was 7.5 per cent as recently as 2010. Similarly, Turkish GDP had been over 9 per cent in 2010 and was still 8.5 per cent in 2011. But the economy flat-lined with zero growth in the second half of 2012 and the rebound in the first part of 2013 is not generally expected to be sustained.

As a result there has been a sharp increase in popular discontent which took just a small spark to enflame mass mobilisations. It is widely recognised that the opposition to the development in Gezi Park and the small fares increases in Brazil were simply a reflection of much wider grievances.

The underlying source of those grievances is that there is no longer any room for the policy of a progressive redistribution of rising national incomes. In different ways this had been the policy of both the ruling AKP in Turkey and PT in Brazil.

National incomes are no longer rising and there is no increase to redistribute.

On this question, there is an interesting contrast with the Australian Labor Party. It too presided over a commodities-related boom but was wholly incapable of any redistribution. The one measure that was attempted, a windfall tax on the mining companies’ booming profits was fiercely resisted and so effectively dropped. Both the AKP and PT were more progressive than the ALP. The latter’s inability to provide any popular benefits from the previous boom explains its deep unpopularity, which it has dealt with by participating in an orgy of misogyny.

The response of the PT and AKP governments to growing unrest has been very different. Erdogan’s policy relies on mobilisation of his party’s base and a sharp crackdown on the protests with heavy force and arbitrary arrests away from the demonstrations. By contrast the PT government has reversed the fares increase, promised large-scale investment in public transport and revived a proposed wealth tax to fund it. There is talk also of greater democracy, with a Constituent Assembly plebiscite to produce unspecified political reform.

The mass mobilisations in both countries are extremely heterogeneous. A wide variety of legitimate and contradictory grievances have come to the fore. In Turkey a section of the movement is opposed to involvement in the coalition to overthrow Assad in Syria. In Brazil, some have raised their opposition to the government policy of privatisation.

In both countries the military and the rightist political forces linked to it have an interest in fanning the flames. One danger is that they are able to hijack or win leadership of these movements with calls for the overthrow of the elected governments. In both Turkey and Brazil the only forces capable of doing that in the current circumstances would be the army and the right.

This would be a disastrous outcome reversing all the reforms of the previous period. To prevent that the ruling parties need to go beyond their previous redistributionist agenda. The state will have to encroach on the ownership and direction of production, using the resources of capital to do so.

The PT has taken a small step in that direction with the proposed public transport system funded by a wealth tax.

The AKP however seems intent on a policy of repression. This will allow the right to pose as the defenders of freedom, even while plotting with the army.

Watching over all this is the US. Imperialism has been on the back foot in Latin America with a series of left governments coming to power reaching its high-point in the struggle to establish a workers’ state in Venezuela. Yet US imperialism’s long-time alliance with the military in many countries has not been broken and it has organised recent coups in both Honduras and Paraguay.

Similarly, Turkey is regarded as a strategic NATO member. With the Middle East in turmoil the Turkish military will be advertising its credentials as an alternative to the AKP. Erdogan risks playing into its hands by alienating key supporters through repression.

The policy based on the idea that ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’ is over. The tide of global growth and rising commodities’ prices is at an ebb. If countries as varied as Brazil and Turkey, as well as others, are to avoid a reversal of all recent gains, or worse, falling into the embrace of the US and its local military henchmen, a new policy is required. The state will need to enter the sphere of production and at least some struggle with capital in order to ensure a resumed improvement in living standards.