Why Democracy Is Struggling in Asia

They called themselves the people’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), but their aims were hardly democratic. During their 192-day protest campaign, the PAD paralyzed Thailand, blockading the capital’s two airports for eight days and besieging the Prime Minister’s office complex for months. By the time the opposition alliance withdrew on Dec. 3, a democratically elected government had been disbanded by the country’s courts and political street violence had claimed several lives. And should future polls bring back politicians linked with Thailand’s ousted rulers? “The PAD will return,” vowed alliance leader Sondhi Limthongkul, who earlier in the siege told his thousands of supporters to “shed your blood if it is necessary.”

Thailand was once celebrated as a democratic oasis in a region awash with authoritarianism. Today, the Southeast Asian nation is reeling from its worst political crisis since a democracy movement toppled a military regime 17 years ago. A new government has been formed — the fourth in 2008 — but its Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, was forced to delay his inaugural policy address because of protests by supporters of the previous administration. Hovering in the background is the PAD, which draws its ranks from the very middle class and élite that supported the 1992 democracy movement, and has as its ultimate aim a so-called “New Politics,” whose fuzzy, oft-shifting aims have included the undemocratic step of appointing parliamentarians. “We’re looking at a dead end politically,” says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. “It’s hard to understand how democracy in Thailand has come to this.”

That same point can be made today about many Asian nations. After the shackles of colonialism were overthrown, largely after World War II, the 21st century was supposed to herald the ascent of democracy in Asia. While parts of the region — from Burma and North Korea to Laos, Vietnam and China — are still governed by diktat, the past couple of decades have created a region that to all outward appearances is largely democratic. Over the past 10 years, some 20 Asian countries have held elections, and many have undergone peaceful transitions in government.

Yet throughout 2008, many Asians appeared to progressively lose their faith in democratic politics. In Thailand and South Korea, the streets have been convulsed by mass protests, despite elections that ushered in popular leaders in the past two years. Pakistan and East Timor are rapidly veering toward the status of failed states. Malaysia suffers from a paucity of good governance, proof that simply holding polls doesn’t ensure a healthy democracy. Postelection riots shook Mongolia, while Bangladesh is trying to exorcise two years of military-backed rule with a strong voter turnout in its Dec. 29 polls that ushered the secular Awami League back to office. The Philippines, which staged the region’s first People Power movement back in 1986, recently endured a state of emergency. Taiwan, where presidential elections 11 years ago marked the first time ever a Chinese society directly chose its leader, is turning against a new President in record time.

Even in India, the terror attacks in Mumbai uncovered a deep well of anger against the democratically elected government for its failure to carry out a fundamental function: protect citizens from harm. And Japan, the region’s oldest democracy? In recent years the country has cycled through Prime Ministers nearly as quickly as fashion fads.

In many ways, the challenges of Asian democracy are a reflection of its youth. Democracy in the West evolved over centuries — and, even then, its proponents understood its limitations, as Winston Churchill did when he postulated that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms.” Asia, for the most part, has raced through the democratization process in just a couple of decades. Though much of the continent considers itself democratic, only five of the 25 Asian nations polled in the 2008 survey of political and civil rights by the U.S.-based NGO Freedom House were deemed truly “free” — begging the question: Given the events of the past year, are Asia and democracy compatible?

Growing pains may be forgiven in emerging democracies. But if the current political instabilities are allowed to metastasize, Asian nations could tire of the notion of democracy altogether because it’s considered too messy, ineffectual or corrupt. In South Korea, Mongolia, Taiwan, Thailand and the Philippines, a study by the governance-tracking Asian Barometer Project found that more citizens believed that the nations’ recent democratic transitions had brought no improvement to their lives than those who saw positive changes. With time softening the memories of autocratic rule, nostalgia for overthrown dictators is spreading. Some are even calling for a resurgence of so-called “Asian values,” a mix of paternalistic discipline and market economics that fell into disregard after the 1997 financial meltdown proved that crony capitalism thrived in the absence of democratic checks and balances. In Thailand, as in many parts of Asia, members of the educated élite bristle at the notion that Western-style democracy is a one-size-fits-all political system. “You can’t expect us to have a European- or American-style democracy here,” says PAD member Visitchai Kemajitpan. “We should have our own Oriental democracy.”

Such sentiments weren’t so controversial when regional growth rates marched upward with metronomic precision. But as Asia faces a global financial crisis, flexible and responsive leadership is all the more crucial. While the specter of economic mayhem catalyzed one of the most dynamic presidential campaigns in recent U.S. history, it has done little to spur Asia’s democracies into action. Japan’s parliament is unable to decide on an economic-reform package, while Malaysia and Thailand engage in partisan politics that has little to do with how to shield these export-led economies from a slowdown in the West. Indeed, Asian governance is failing in democracy’s most basic undertaking: to represent the will of the people. Back when the region was poor and ravaged by war, Asia’s citizens made an unspoken pact with their leaders, that economic progress could predate political reform. But, today, most Asians are fed and clothed, and a middle class flourishes. Where, then, is the accountability, transparency and justice Asians crave? Here are four areas in which the continent’s democratic experiment is underperforming — and what Asia can do about it.

Engaging the Electorate
Asia may be home to three-fifths of the world’s population, but not a single election over the past decade has produced a leader able to build broad-based support for decisive policy choices. Why is this? One answer lies in a fundamental difference in the way Asians regard their rulers. Although the Asian Barometer Project found that the majority of Asians say they support most democratic ideals, their commitment to limits on a leader’s power is far lower than that of people polled in Europe or even sub-Saharan Africa. In South Korea, for instance, nearly two-thirds of those surveyed believed that a morally upright ruler could be given carte blanche to do whatever he wants, even if that means breaking the law.

This ruler-knows-best attitude can make Asians act more like subjects than citizens. Militaries — the other power pole in much of Asia — can meddle in politics without much public distress from the masses. Just look at how Bangkok office ladies cheerily handed carnations to the soldiers who carried out a 2006 coup against Thailand’s democratically elected leader. When Asians finally do react against their governments, it is often in extremis, anger spilling onto the streets in revolutionary-style rallies.

The impulse is understandable. Beginning in the mid-1980s, a wave of people-power revolutions transformed the continent, from the Philippines and South Korea to Thailand and Taiwan. But such mass protests were designed to overthrow dictators, not democratically elected leaders. In much of Asia, political frameworks now exist to remove incompetent rulers at the ballot box, making street rallies to throw the bums out largely unnecessary. Of course, no electoral system is perfect: vote-buying in villages, for instance, plagues some Asian countries. But it is only by going through several electoral cycles that democracies can consolidate and grow.

To an extent, the lack of trust in elections is a consequence of inadequate political education. For frustrated farmers or construction workers or street vendors, it may be easier to imagine political change through a groundswell of antigovernment rallies rather than through checking one of many underwhelming candidates on a ballot. Asia’s education systems, largely underfunded and over-reliant on rote learning, do little to instruct citizens on the power of franchise or the importance of accountable leadership. Still, as Thais — even those who initially supported the PAD protesters — realized, months of street demonstrations are not pleasant. The protest movement may have gotten what it wanted, but the country now faces a likely economic recession because foreign investors and tourists are spooked by the political instability.

Building Checks and Balances
Traditional Asian deference makes it easier for one party to keep a stranglehold on politics, its power feeding on itself and undermining real opposition. Malaysia and Singapore have each been controlled by one party since independence, while the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) dominates Japan. “The LDP has been in power for more than 50 years,” says Arne Fahje, a constitutional expert in Tokyo. “That doesn’t work in a democracy, and it’s not good for the country.”

Other countries are blighted by dynastic democracy, in which the same families — the Bhutto-Zardaris in Pakistan, say — act as if it is their birthright to lead, and the electorate duly votes them in. Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Philippines have all elected daughters of former leaders to helm their countries, while the man who’s set to assume the top post in Malaysia in March is the son of a former Prime Minister. In Japan, the current premier is the grandson and son-in-law of ex-premiers, while his two immediate predecessors were the son and grandson of Prime Ministers respectively.

Unless voters learn to identify rulers beyond a family crest or party symbol, the region’s leadership crisis will only feed the historical assumption that Asians are somehow ill-equipped to handle democracy. John Stuart Mill, whose writings helped gird modern democratic principles, dismissed the Indians living under British rule as “barbarian,” perhaps better suited to despotic rule. The colonial assumption was that Asians were somehow not civilized enough to handle democracy.

Newly independent nations took on the white man’s burden, however, and surpassed their former overlords’ expectations. The target of Mill’s doubt, India — with some 3,000 castes, 22 official languages and at least 10 distinct faiths — is the world’s most populous democracy, despite the efforts of insurgents and religious extremists to derail it. Indeed, in the aftermath of the recent Mumbai terror attacks, the city did not erupt in sectarian riots as some had feared it would. Back in 1949, B.R. Ambedkar, the low-caste architect of India’s constitution, called democracy “topdressing on Indian soil.” Yet today, Mayawati Kumari, a member of a Dalit, or untouchable, caste is one of the nation’s biggest political stars — albeit one with a penchant for accepting lavish gifts. “The fact that a leader like Mayawati can rise, that a Dalit woman can have a shot at becoming the Prime Minister of India,” says historian Ramachandra Guha, “is a matter of pride for Indian democracy.” Too few other Asian nations can be so proud.

Shoring Up Institutions
Asia’s propensity for voting in a big man (or woman) has stifled the growth of independent institutions that should check the power of elected leaders. Often, the media is muzzled, if not silenced outright. In 2007, at least 17 journalists were killed in Asia for doing their job, while in Pakistan alone 250 reporters were detained by security forces, according to media watchdog Reporters Without Borders. “Pakistan’s inability to institute a democratic political system stems from the failure to build institutions that can moderate conflict,” says Ayesha Jalal, a historian at Tufts University in Massachusetts, who specializes in South Asian politics.

Across much of Asia, the courts are viewed as compromised, as in the case of Pakistan where the country’s former Law Minister Aitzaz Ahsan describes the judiciary as “handcuffed.” The rich and powerful are seen as finding their way around the judicial system. “People have an image that there’s no equality under the law,” says Choi Jang Jip, a political-science professor at Korea University in Seoul, referring to perceptions in South Korea. The stakes are higher in Thailand, where the former ruling People Power Party and two of its partners were banned last month in what critics have called a “judicial coup.” Although the judgment to punish the three onetime governing coalition members for electoral fraud may have been sound, the speed of the court decision raised eyebrows. Less than an hour after hearing closing arguments, the nine-person judicial panel effectively dissolved Thailand’s government. And even though the case could have been adjudicated at any point over a several-month period, the ruling came just as the opposition PAD was blockading the airports and promising not to leave until the government was gone.

But just as it only takes one or two decisions to imperil a court’s reputation, a handful of high-profile cases can restore faith. For years, Malaysia’s once highly regarded courts had been beset by allegations of bribery and eroded independence. Then, in November, a top human-rights activist whose 13-year battle against charges of maliciously publishing false news — an allegation international human-rights groups decried as trumped up — finally won her appeal. The same month, a Malaysian court overturned the Home Minister’s decision to jail a dissident journalist without trial. Two court cases may not sound like much, but their significance was not lost on longtime opposition politician Lim Kit Siang, who labeled the decisions “victories for free speech and judicial independence.”

Unless Asians feel like the courts rule with only the law in mind, not political influences, democracy cannot flourish. Standing up for judicial impartiality depends on the courage of individual judges. But it also relies on political leaders who refrain from meddling with benches — and who know that doing so will imperil them in the next election.

Developing Civil Society
Many of the region’s people-power revolutions occurred because of the courage of independent activists leading the downtrodden masses. The intervening years, however, have bred disenchantment within Asia’s civil society. One of the architects of Thailand’s PAD is Chamlong Srimuang, a Buddhist ascetic who spearheaded the country’s seminal 1992 democracy movement. This time around, Chamlong campaigned on the streets to rid the country of its elected leaders. Like others in the opposition alliance, the 73-year-old believes that democracy is so corrupted in Thailand — votes are bought, the rural electorate is woefully uneducated — as to be rendered meaningless.

The backlash against electoral politics by the very people who were recently its proponents may be the most troubling sign of Asian democracy under siege. Civil society acts as the moral force of Asia. Activists are crucial both for their capacity to inspire the populace to act more justly and to speak out when leaders slide toward authoritarianism. Unlike the leadership roster in Asia, the list of brave citizens who once spoke out for the disenfranchised is long, from Jaime Cardinal Sin in the Philippines to the writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer in Indonesia. In Asia today, perhaps because the abuses wrought by current rulers are not as egregious as those of the Marcos or Suharto eras, activists tend to be less vocal. Yet unless members of civil society continue to defend their causes across the continent, the accomplishments of their predecessors are threatened. Luckily, pockets of idealism remain. In India, once marginalized groups like lower castes, tribal members and so-called forest dwellers today enjoy democratic rights they could scarcely have imagined a generation ago, from land use to government participation. “All of these [advances] have been the result of years of struggle by civil society,” says political analyst Manoranjan Mohanty. “These struggles hold out hope for the future of Indian democracy.”

There’s also the inspiration provided by this century’s most electrifying election yet: the 2008 U.S. presidential race. Across Asia, citizens are beginning to ask who will serve as their nations’ Obamas, change agents who vow to reach across party lines and heal divided societies. One Asian, it turns out, has already assumed the role. Just before the American election, on a string of islands and coral atolls in the Indian Ocean, another far less heralded poll took place. For 30 years, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom had ruled the Maldives, making him Asia’s longest-serving leader. But on Nov. 11, he peacefully relinquished power after the country’s first-ever multiparty popular elections. His successor is Mohamed Nasheed, a human-rights activist whom Gayoom had imprisoned repeatedly. At his inauguration, the 41-year-old Nasheed said he hoped his government would serve as a “fine example to the international community.” It’s an example Asia, indeed the world, needs.



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