The right way to handle protests

First Turkey, now Brazil. In each case it started with small protests on a local issue (a park development in Istanbul, bus fares in São Paulo), which escalated following a ham-fisted police response, leading to demonstrations on a large scale across the country raising a broad set of issues.

But there the scripts diverge. Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave Turkey’s protesters the metaphorical finger by dismissing their grievances and then leaving on an overseas trip. (He has since recovered ground, but it was hard work.) Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff, however, has adopted a very different tone, first saying that “Peaceful demonstrations are legitimate and part of democracy” and yesterday moving to explicit support of the protesters.

According to the BBC, she said that “Brazil has woken up a stronger country”: “It is good to see so many young people, and adults – the grandson, the father and the grandfather – together holding the Brazilian flag, singing our anthem and fighting for a better country.”

Brazil is one of the giants of the world economy. It’s the fifth largest country by both area and population and the seventh or eighth largest by GDP. But its per capita wealth is still only around the world average, much smaller than all the other big economies apart from China and India.

So although growth in recent years has been impressive, many Brazilians are evidently upset that so much of it is lost to corruption and that their government sometimes seems more focused on the prestige of becoming a world power than on improving the lot of the population. “People are going hungry and the government builds stadiums,” as one protester said.

Protests about a specific grievance can be met by addressing that grievance: São Paulo’s could have been nipped in the bud by agreeing to cancel the fare rises. But with broad-based demonstrations like these it’s not so easy. Sometimes the crowd can be appeased by throwing them a scalp – the resignation of an unpopular minister, for example – but that can also be counter-productive, emboldening the demonstrators to demand more.

What demonstrators probably want most is respect: an acknowledgement from the government that their complaints are legitimate and will be listened do. But that’s a difficult thing to fake. Autocrats who have spent their careers treating the public with disdain are unlikely to be believed when they start offering concessions.

Rousseff is in a strong position because she starts with a reputation as a friend of the poor. That may have tarnished somewhat during her two and a half years in power, but it is still possible to believe her when she says her government “is listening to the voices calling for change.”

Rhetoric is not a substitute for change, but the right rhetoric at the right time can give a government room to move. The demonstrators feel that their actions have been validated, that something has been achieved, and they’re willing to wait a bit longer for more substantive reforms to be made. And although that won’t be easy, Brazil is better placed than most countries.

But if change doesn’t happen, don’t expect the next round of demonstrators to be so patient.

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