Democracy in Asia gains ground except in Singapore

18 December 2004

More than a billion Asians cast their votes this year to elect new leaders. Analysts say these exercises show that democracy is flourishing in the region. Nevertheless, for many people, democracy remains an elusive goal.

Asia has been on the path of democratization since the mid-1980s. People did away with dictatorships in the Philippines, Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand, and much later, Indonesia.

The region continued to see major gains in democracy this year. Elections were held in seven Asian countries and in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Indonesia held its first direct presidential elections. The orderly transition of power in Southeast Asia’s most populous nation, disproved predictions six-years ago that Indonesia would disintegrate without the authoritarian leadership of former president Suharto.

Afghanistan also held landmark presidential elections – this, after years of war and then rule by the theocratic and restrictive Taleban. Though far from peaceful, experts say the election was a major step in the country’s rehabilitation.

Major ballots also took place in Mongolia, Malaysia, the Philippines, India, and Australia.

But despite the encouraging political landscape, there are also some exceptions in Asia. Communist North Korea remains a closed country, with tens of thousands of its citizens escaping starvation and oppression to neighboring countries.

China’s communist leaders – who hold a monopoly on power – this year ruled out Western-style democracy. There are limited village elections in China, but only the autonomous territory of Hong Kong holds a popular vote, but Beijing this year turned down demands for universal suffrage.

Larry Diamond specializes in democratization at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He says he is optimistic that democracy will take root in China, because it is the only system that can handle China’s rapid economic growth. “The social problems that are emerging with the pace of economic development and the generation of inequalities and the profound degree of corruption – I do not think authoritarian governance can deal with them. Either [democracy] is going to happen in stages with competitive elections moving up from the village level to the township, county level, provincial level and ultimately, in the national level and with much more scope for an independent judiciary and civil society. Or there is going to be one massive debilitating political crisis in China,” he says.

Military-ruled Burma made attempts at political reforms this year by holding a constitutional convention with its various ethnic groups. It is not yet clear what reforms the convention will produce as the main democratic opposition is boycotting the talks while their leader is under house arrest. Then Burma’s architect of a democratic roadmap Khin Nyunt was also removed as prime minister in October and replaced by a hardliner.

Kevin Hewison, a Southeast Asia expert at the City University of Hong Kong, says political change is not insight for Burma. “Reform in Burma is unlikely, after all this is a regime that has been in power since 1962 and has not really engaged in any reforms since then,” he says.

But democracy in the region is not the answer to all problems. Government corruption and poverty remain rife in many countries, such as the Philippines and Indonesia. Maintaining law and order is a problem in other nations, like Afghanistan. Civil liberties are sometimes curtailed in Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore. And the presence of elections in some countries conceals one-party dominance – such as Malaysia and Singapore.(emphasis added)

Thawilwadee Bureekul, who studies democracy at the King Prajadhipok Institute in Thailand, says good governance is still lacking in many democracies in Asia. “The challenge for all democracies is promoting governance – securing independent institutions, implementing checks and balances and in some cases, power sharing,” he says.

Analysts say money politics and corruption are also undermining democracies in Asia. They urge for more transparency in campaign contributions and as much as possible, public funding of political campaigns. Professor Hewison says “while democracy opens up the political space – it opens it up for all sorts of people and its been fairly clear in Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines that money can be converted to political power. I think trying to break that nexus is a real challenge for political systems and for democratization.”

Despite those challenges ahead, analysts agree that gains consolidated this year mean democracy in Asia is here to stay.

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