Voters have the last word in Asia (except S’pore)

Daniel Sneider
21 June 2004
Knight Ridder Newspapers

One of the surest signs of the strength of democratic institutions is unpredictability. You know democracy is working when the guys who aren’t supposed to win emerge triumphant. It means voters trust elections as the way to be heard.

Nearing the end of the Asian election season, most of the results are in – and they are full of surprises.

In three vital Asian nations, voters kicked the pants of those in power. The votes surprised the pundits – and I count myself among those caught napping – and sent some powerful messages.

– Indonesia – On April 5, President Megawati Sukarnoputri was put on notice when her party came in second, with only 18 percent of the vote, in the selection of a new legislature. Polls ahead of the July 5 presidential vote show her trailing two other candidates, both former generals. The electorate’s message: We like our new democracy, but give us a little stability and order along with it.

– South Korea – The vote for the Korean National Assembly on April 15 was one of Asia’s shockers. A brand new party, closely tied to President Roo Moo-Hyun, won control of the legislature. It was a triumph for the president, who had been temporarily forced to step aside when opposition parties tried to impeach him. The vote was also a sign that younger Koreans are leaving behind the era defined by the Korean war, decades of military rule and heavy state guidance of the economy.

– India – When it comes to confounding pundits, few elections can compare with India’s parliamentary vote, carried out over April and May. India’s massive electorate – some 350 million voters – delivered a stunning reversal to the ruling coalition led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. After years in opposition, the Congress Party returned to power, leading its own alliance of parties. Analysts read the vote as a message from India’s rural population that they wanted India’s high tech-led economic boom to reach their villages.

Asia’s Muslim voters also delivered proof that given a democratic choice, they want little to do with Islamic radicalism. In Indonesia and in neighboring Malaysia, two majority-Muslim nations with strong secular leadership, voters overwhelmingly rejected appeals of Islamist parties that called for the creation of an Islamic state.

But Asia’s exercise in democracy was not trouble-free. There were reminders of what Americans re-learned in 2000 – legitimacy can only come from an election perceived to be free and fair. Consider these examples:

– Taiwan – The presidential election on March 20, which began the election season, remains controversial. With the opposition candidate apparently heading for victory, the fortunes of President Chen Shui-bian took an unexpected turn days before the vote when he and his vice president were targets of a bizarre attempted assassination. His narrow victory was likely due to the sympathy vote – and it was subsequently challenged in court. While Chen has reached out to his foes, many Taiwanese remain convinced that the assassination attempt was staged.

– Philippines – More than a month later, there is still no official count from the May 10 elections. The process is dogged by charges of fraud and abuse, as well as allegations that incumbent President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo misused public funds prior to the vote to buy support. Large numbers of eligible voters – estimates range from 1 million to 3 million – were not allowed to vote because they were left off registration lists.

Arroyo seems headed, based on unofficial counts and exit polling, to a close victory over her main rival, film star Fernando Poe Jr.

American observers who have been monitoring the election say they haven’t yet seen compelling evidence putting that outcome into question. But court challenges have been filed and investigations launched by citizens groups. “Our people are quiet at the moment – but all the anger is inside,” Carlos Serapio, secretary-general of the Christian Nationalists Union, told me.

Still, the good news is that democracy is surprisingly vibrant across Asia. Those democracies may not always look like ours. They didn’t come from some model imposed by outsiders, but rather grew out of home-grown struggles for political freedom. And that is why they work.

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