The tiger in the ballot box

Sydney Morning Herald
May 29, 2004

Dictators and coup plotters are no match for the sophistication of Asia today. Louise Williams looks at how wealth is driving democracy.

Thailand’s bloodless military coup of 1991 was, conveniently, pulled off overnight. The tanks were back out of sight before dawn broke. It was pretty much business as usual for Thailand’s roaring economy the following day.

But for the generals who seized power, however, it wasn’t the same old game. They quickly realised they were out of their depth, a stunning humiliation for a military establishment so accustomed to calling the political shots. “For the first time, the military knew it could not run the country,” said Anand Panyarachun, the respected civilian prime minister who was called in 10 days later to oversee the return to democracy.

The problem, Anand reflected some years later, was that while the military knew how to stage a successful coup, Thailand’s rapidly industrialising economy had become too complex to be run by soldiers.

“A modern society and the management of the economy needed people with different qualifications from generals and air marshals,” he said.

It was, according to Professor Larry Diamond, a Stanford University political scientist, probably Thailand’s last military coup. Not just for now, but forever. Diamond’s view goes directly to a much larger question. Does money, eventually, buy democracy? Or is there a recurring link between wealth and political freedom?

Asia is the world’s fastest-growing region, despite the hiccup of the 1997 economic crisis. The unprecedented speed of industrialisation in Asia has pulled hundreds of millions of people into globalised, modern economies in a single generation. Asia is rewriting economic theory. Is a new political map also in the making?

FOR Australia, the likely political shape of Asia is as important as the region’s expanding markets. Three decades ago, India and Japan were Asia’s democratic exceptions. Elsewhere, a slew of military dictators and authoritarian leaders held sway. This year more than a billion people have voted, or will vote, in mainly peaceful national elections in Indonesia, India, Taiwan, the Philippines, South Korea, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and in upper house elections in Japan.

“This is very good news for the region, because it means you can achieve change without the traumas that accompany political crises,” says Allan Gyngell, executive director of the Lowy Institute of International Affairs.

In Malaysia in March, voters handed a large majority to the new Prime Minister, Abdullah Badawi, who ran a reformist campaign. In Indonesia last month, two untested reformist parties broke the hold of the old political elite. In India this month, voters ousted the Hindu nationalist government because it had failed to share the benefits of the technology driven boom with the poor.

“Each one of these elections matters and this is a very important step in the region’s democratic transition. But it is not the last step,” says Dr Roland Rich, director of the Centre for Democratic Institutions at the Australian National University. “What we are seeing is a great experiment in democracy which we can’t yet declare a success.”

ASIA’S early economic growth was presided over by autocrats, who were keen to lecture their Western critics on their uniquely Asian formula for success. Political controls and social discipline were core “Asian values”, which ensured stability, ensuring foreign investment.

But economic growth was – at the same time – changing the very societies these values supposedly defined. Hundreds of millions of people have since migrated to cities, away from traditional village power structures, beginning in parts of east Asia in the 1960s and expanding to other parts of the region in the ’80s. Wealthier, rapidly modernising economies are connecting hundreds of millions more to globalised communication networks.

It is what the China specialist David Goodman calls an increase in the speed of daily life. “People meet more, they communicate more, they are busier and all kinds of things change. It is a cultural change,” says Goodman, professor of international relations at the University of Technology, Sydney. “People are saying countries like ours should have elections which may not necessarily mirror Western models.”

The Asian values debate, he said, was about Asia’s last generation of dictators trying to swim against the tide. The 1991 Thai coup coincided with Thailand topping the list of the world’s fastest-growing economies. The coup leader, General Suchinda Kraprayoon, did make a last-ditch attempt to reserve himself the best seat in the new civilian government the following year. But he left public life in disgrace after his troops fired on protesting students.

Over the past two decades, entrenched authoritarian regimes have been overthrown in the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan and Indonesia. Modest, mainly local, reforms have followed the economic opening of China and Vietnam. Gyngell believes Indonesia’s strongman, the former president Soeharto, also similarly underestimated the political implications of rising incomes. “The great tragedy of Soeharto is that he failed to understand the changes his own economic policies had brought to Indonesia. More affluent middle classes are demanding a greater say in their own future,” he says.

Overshadowing any democratic trend is China, the real engine of regional growth. The World Bank estimates China’s economy will double is size in 10 years, and equal Japan’s advanced economy in another 10.

Goodman believes pressure for change is also building in China, even within the ranks of the ruling Communist Party. China is definitely more open than it was 10 years ago, especially the media. There is quite a head of steam building up, he says. Asia’s most repressive and closed states, North Korea and Burma, have maintained absolute political control. Their people live in dire poverty. Yet, there are exceptions. Singapore and, to a lesser extent, Malaysia have built affluent, educated consumer classes, but offer their citizens only limited political choices.

It would be naive to argue that democracy, itself, is a cure-all. Votes can be bought and sold. Old political elites can reinvent themselves as democrats, thus maintaining access to the spoils of public office. Flawed elections offer little more than a revolving door through which the same corrupt, incompetent politicians rotate.

In Indonesia this year, President Megawati Soekarnoputri lost much support because her elected officials had picked up where Soeharto left off: their hands were in the public till.

But the nature of economic growth is also part of the political equation. Asia’s gleaming, modern cities belie the stagnation and poverty of many rural villages. The wealth gap between Asia’s rich and poor and its cities and villages is stark and growing.

Since 1981, the World Bank estimates rapid growth in Asia has pulled almost half a million people out of poverty. However, 700 million people continue to subsist on less than $US2 a day.

Such inequality is a potential trigger for political instability, GDP gains notwithstanding. Money, on its own, does not buy democracy. Its benefits must be spread. This means it is the emergence of an opinionated, educated middle class in Asia, Diamond argues, that is most likely to bring about durable political change.

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