Asia: Case studies in democracy

Tom Ginsburg
Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI)

The world should look to countries in Asia as examples of successful consolidation of democracy.

A decade and a half ago, as the third wave of democracy was cresting, it seemed that freedom was becoming a global norm; today, that wave is rapidly receding. Most of the former Soviet republics have followed Russia into authoritarianism; leftist populism is on the march in Latin America; Africa’s nascent democratic wave proved short-lived; and democratic processes in the Middle East have produced Islamist electoral victories in Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq.

Asia was at the forefront of the third wave, despite its lack of an indigenous history of democracy, and is the only region outside of Europe in which a large set of consolidated democracies emerged in the third wave. Asia offers the best hope of understanding how consolidated democracies can emerge in parts of the world without a liberal political tradition.

The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism

If the 1990s were the decade of democracy, the first decade of the 21st century can be seen as the decade of competitive, or electoral, authoritarianism. Such systems have the apparent trappings of democracy, but channels for participation and accountability are manipulated to ensure dominance of one faction. From Iran to Venezuela to Zimbabwe, these regimes appear to be the norm.

By contrast, in Asia, Japan is about to enter its seventh decade of democracy under the American-drafted constitution, Korea is an OECD member entering its third decade of democracy, Taiwan would be in the OECD but for its international situation, Mongolia survived a bout of Putinism to remain a consolidated democracy in the shadow of two authoritarian giants, Indonesia has emerged as the leading consolidated democracy in a majority Muslim country, Malaysian semi-democracy may be healthier than it has been in decades, and the Philippines has survived a coup and an attempt by the president to extend her term.

Inroads on the communist mainland have of course been less rapid than some had hoped. China sits atop a broad swath of unfree countries, from Myanmar through Indochina extending to North Korea. But even in China, civil liberties have improved significantly with two decades of sustained economic growth, and the lessons of the other democracies in the region may one day be applicable in the neighborhood.


Taiwan is where the first sign of the third wave in Asia emerged. In 1986, President Chiang Ching-kuo initiated a reform of the political system to expand political participation, with a goal of reunification with the mainland. Chiang believed that a more democratic Taiwan would serve as a vanguard for democratizing China. Opposition political parties were legalized, and during a long transition, opposition politicians made demands for reform which were then co-opted by the liberalizing mainstream faction of the Kuomintang. That faction became the vehicle of the remarkable leader Lee Teng-hui, an advocate of Taiwan independence. Lee used his political skills to transform the KMT, and eventually martial law was ended and new elections were held to replace the national assembly elected on the mainland forty years earlier. In Taiwan’s first democratic presidential election in 1996, Lee was elected for a four-year term.

With the election of Democratic Progressive Party leader Chen Shui-bian as president in 2000, Taiwan passed with flying colors the key test of any democracy, a succession of power. Despite poor political performance by virtually all accounts, democracy is clearly entrenched for good.

The Philippines

If Taiwan’s democratization was gradual and peaceful, the ending of the regimes in the Philippines was hardly so, with the People Power revolution that brought down Marcos in 1986. Since the adoption of the 1987 Constitution, Philippines politics have been mired in scandal, corruption, and two impeachment attempts. Whatever the level of performance, however, democracy seems entrenched. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo survived a 2003 military rebellion, but was unable to push through constitutional amendments to permit her to serve beyond 2010. The Philippines has thus withstood two significant tests of its democracy in the last four years: a failed coup and the rejection of a democratic leader’s seeking to use extra-constitutional means to extend her term (as happened this month to Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, who lost his bid for constitutional amendment so that he could serve past 2012).

South Korea

After South Korea’s “people power” movement of 1987 against the heavy-handed governance of Chun Doo Hwan, the government agreed to a democratic transition based on a pact among elements of the military regime and the two major opposition parties. The new constitution provided for a democratically elected president, limited to one five-year term. Each of the three major protagonists in 1987 has now held that office; the current president is a former activist labor lawyer, Roh Moo-Hyun. Democratic performance has not always been satisfying, and the popularity of each of the four directly elected presidents has dropped significantly over the course of their terms. But democracy is fully consolidated: the military is under control, elections are vigorously contested, and the courts have become major sites for the constraint of politics.


While not yet a fully consolidated democracy, Indonesia presents a remarkable case in Asian democracy. It is the largest country outside China in the region, predominantly Muslim, and diverse and centrifugal in character. Governed for thirty-two years by the authoritarian Suharto, Indonesia’s regime might have survived the new era until the 1997Asian Financial Crisis. An austerity program backed by the IMF empowered Suharto’s opponents, and when Suharto engineered another presidential term for himself, protests forced him from office. Thus began the reformasi era of gradual constitutional reforms. Significant decentralization has occurred, and lingering security problems such as the Aceh rebellion and the occupation of East Timor have been resolved. The 2004 election of Yudhyono marked the first direct election of the chief executive of this era.


In Thailand, the Asian Financial Crisis spurred efforts to complete constitutional reform, leading to the passage of the 1997 “People’s Constitution,” which introduced a number of checks over the country’s political institutions. Alas, the Constitution worked too well, and a large political party emerged under the control of controversial populist billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, who used his base in the countryside and his large checkbook to consolidate power and control the country’s nominally independent oversight institutions. Massive demonstrations in 2006 and a remonstrance from the King forced Thaksin to resign, but he continued to serve in an interim capacity. In September 2006, the military staged a coup while Thaksin was out of the country. While the military announced a rapid timetable of constitutional reform, to be capped off with elections on 23 December 2007, the coup nonetheless represents a setback for Thai democracy.


Mongolia’s story is more like those of the Central and Eastern European republics. A longtime puppet regime of the Soviet Union, Mongolia initiated rapid political reform in 1990. By 1992, it had a new democratic constitution, and it has witnessed several rounds of free and fair elections since then. As in Taiwan, when the longtime ruling party lost power, the newly empowered “democratic forces” proved ineffective at governance, leading to corruption scandals and the return of the formerly communist Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party. From 2000 to 2004, a Putinesque leader named Enkhbayar served as prime minister, reestablishing close relations with Russia and intimidating the opposition, but these tendencies never reached the levels found in Russia. Today, Enkhbayar is president, while the parliament is governed by a grand coalition of both major parties.

Democratization debates: Sequentialist vs universalist

What do these cases tell us about democratization? In understanding how democracies emerge, social scientists have long been divided between sequentialists, who emphasize the importance of preconditions and structural constraints, versus universalists, who believe democracy is plausible virtually everywhere. The former place greater emphasis on cultural bases of democracy, while the latter draw inspiration from the enlightenment, the founding fathers, and Wilsonian idealism.

From the 1950s into the 1970s, the social sciences were dominated by modernization theorists who emphasized the importance of preconditions. Democracy, like industrialization, signified modernity, and modernization required deep cultural transformation. This position resonated with Cold War imperatives, justifying as it did developmentalist imperatives and alliances with capitalist authoritarians. Development policy emphasized education, to transform the social bases of political and economic development, and capitalist economics.

In Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics (1958), Seymour Martin Lipset hypothesized that democracy was a product of social factors and economic preconditions, and, in particular, the emergence of a strong middle class. The policy implication was that countries should focus initially on economic development; pressures for democracy would emerge naturally in due course. Some criticized this approach as an apologia for authoritarianism, but democracy may make the early stages of growth faltering and messy. Powerful individuals and interest groups may use the nascent democratic process to their advantage, while the government’s ability to implement public-spirited reforms may be severely limited. So, in the early stages of growth, an enlightened despotism may well be more efficient than a new democracy.

Against these sequentialists, universalists believe that more political participation is always better. They argue that democracy results from universal strivings for freedom. None of the alleged prerequisites, such as a liberal political culture, a previous history of democracy, or levels of wealth, are really necessary; they are enabling conditions at best. The policy implications of this position are that one should support the extension of democracy abroad in a direct and immediate, not sequenced, way.

What does the evidence from Asia say about this debate?

The Role of Culture. The Asian cases should put to rest the notion that democracy is a uniquely Western or Judeo-Christian phenomenon. As democracy has spread from wealthy Japan to middle-income countries like the Philippines and Indonesia, it has encountered many new cultural environments – Buddhist (Mongolia), Christian (Philippines), Muslim (Indonesia), syncretist (Taiwan), and divided (South Korea, where Buddhists and Christians account for roughly equal shares of the population). Democracy has adjusted to each of these very different environments.

Cultural commonalities can be found even across the diverse range of countries that make up the region, what in the 1990s were called “Asian values.” It was asserted that Asians value consensus over conflict, duty over rights, the group over the individual, and hierarchy over equality. However, the wind has been taken out of the sails of this argument, the two leading proponents of which, Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore and Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia, were hardly disinterested observers. And if Asian values are incompatible with Western-style democracy, how can one explain the five cases discussed here?

Social Structure: Heterogeneity. Beyond essential cultural elements, there are social structural issues that form potential prerequisites for effective democracy. One theme which is important in this regard is the role of ethnic heterogeneity, which is often seen as a challenge for democracy. It divides politics and presents intractable issues incapable of resolution through politics. Iraq is only the most recent case illustrating the challenges of democracy in a multiethnic society. Of course, highly diverse societies such as India can sustain democracy precisely because internal society is too divided to permit permanent dominance of one group. Difficulties seem to result from a large but not too dominant majority facing one or more other groups significant enough to play a spoiler role. In such a configuration the majority has difficulty making credible commitments to protect minority rights and interests. The minority, in turn, has incentives to make maximalist demands.

Northeast Asia’s democracies are relatively homogenous. Japan and Korea have relatively homogenous national populations (though not as homogenous as sometimes imagined). Mongolia has a small Kazak population but is basically homogenous. In Taiwan, the vast majority consider themselves as some type of Chinese, and the main ethnic cleavage between mainlander and Taiwanese is quite fluid.

Southeast Asia’s more diverse societies make ethnic politics more complex. Malaysia’s configuration, closer to Iraq’s in percentage terms than it is to Japan’s, may explain why mild authoritarian controls on public discourse are still considered necessary. The Philippines and Indonesia, roughly 90 percent Christian and Muslim respectively, are both internally diverse societies, in which intercommunal tensions have been a problem in the past. But in Indonesia, the “unity in diversity” formula promulgated since independence has helped create a nascent sense of national identity.

In short, the Asian cases indicate that ethnic homogeneity may be a helpful condition for democracy to thrive, but it is not a necessary one.

History. A recent trend in the social sciences is arguments tracing a range of social and economic outcomes to very long-run processes such as colonial history, geography, the origins of the legal system. In this account, the English legal tradition provides institutional underpinnings for the rule of law.

The East Asian tradition sheds some light on these debates. First, there is the intriguing possibility that Japanese colonial tradition, which established competent and relatively uncorrupt state structures in Korea and Taiwan, is conducive to economic development. Combined with the Lipset thesis, this would imply that the authoritarian Japanese colonial institutions actually laid the basis for democracy by setting up institutions that facilitated economic modernization. Meanwhile. Indonesia and the Philippines, colonized by the Netherlands and Spain, respectively, provide examples of democracies emerging among two colonial traditions that are not usually associated with such positive outcomes.

Economics. The Asian cases provide a good deal of support for the Lipset thesis, emphasizing the importance of sustained economic growth as the basis for social and ultimately political transformation. The global poster children for modernization theory may be South Korea and Taiwan. In both societies, authoritarian, developmentalist regimes obtained some degree of legitimacy from sustained economic growth for many decades. Eventually this growth produced a broad middle class that grew increasingly uncomfortable with paternalistic elites. In both countries, it was only when the middle class joined in coalition with other regime opponents that democratic reforms occurred. (The counterexample would be Singapore, where authoritarianism continues despite high levels of wealth.)

Beyond questions of sequencing. economic structure has to be considered. Asian growth was broad-based. The leaders of the developmentalist states provided social goods such as housing, pensions, health care, and education that made clear their commitment to sustained growth. They could parlay economic growth into legitimacy because they shared most of the wealth, with the partial exception of Marcos in the Philippines. Even in Suharto’s Indonesia, growth was somewhat broad-based, lacking the traditional landlord class of the Philippines.

The Asian economies were famous for their export orientation, a strategy broadly followed by China today. It was the only plausible route for resource-poor South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan. Now that we have seen the “resource curse” that has afflicted economies with wealth concentrated in natural resources, it is understandable why the paucity of resources in Northeast Asia could become an advantage, with their effective development of human capital and efficient deployment of physical capital.

The lesson is that it is not growth alone, but the type of growth that matters. Growth can facilitate the transformation of the class structure, but only if growth is widely shared, with a broad social base.

Outsiders. Korean and Taiwan are also important cases for understanding the role of outside powers. During their authoritarian periods, both Korea and Taiwan were sustained as part of the US Cold War umbrella. Without minimizing the human rights abuses perpetrated by these regimes, the U.S. influence was moderating overall. Its policy of engagement with the regimes gave the U.S. credibility to nudge things forward at crucial junctures. The US was also important as a locus for exiles and a transmitter of ideas and values, since many Taiwanese and Korean leaders studied in the U.S.

The US security umbrella obviously provided an important benefit to Japan, relieving it of the need to fund its own security during the crucial years of postwar reconstruction. It also made possible the Japanese constitution, which provided a balance between the political forces that emerged thereafter on the left and right.

Indonesia’s remarkable transformation was clearly the result of local conditions; but the US has played an important role since Suharto’s fall by providing technical assistance to newly emerging democratic structures. In this sense, it has played a role in democratization, even if it had nothing to do with the democratic moment itself.

These examples suggest that outsiders can play a role by providing resources, ideas and strategies, but that ultimately it is up to local actors to make democracy work. Ambitious attempts to promote democracy are important – and it would be a real shame if the Iraq disaster leads to a turn away from such work. But such activities must be modest in character and confront the real limitations about what is possible.

Sequencing. Should one adopt a constitution before elections? Focus on state building before political liberalization? When should the rule of law be strengthened? These debates have been spurred by recent research suggesting that, in some circumstances, rapid political transition toward democracy could lead to ethnic conflict and war with foreign powers. Many have argued that the rule of law and effective state capacity are important preconditions for effective democratic functioning.

Korea and Taiwan provide little insight here, because as a legacy of Japanese colonialism, both did have strong state apparatuses, with independent legal systems, well before democracy was introduced. State capacity in Southeast Asia was also high compared with, say, sub-Saharan Africa, but court systems were not as strong. The presence of strong state capacity to deliver social services and conduct economic policy did help make democratization relatively successful, but the weakest Asian states, such as Cambodia, are neither democracies nor likely to become democratic in the near future.

The sequencing argument assumes that autocracies can build up state capacity, much as the developmental-state literature suggested that autocracy could help economic growth. Particularly in the early phases, demands on democratic regimes may outstrip capacity. Demands for patronage are also more transparent and abundant in democratic regimes. However, there are plenty of dictatorships that did not engage in state building or did not succeed if they tried.

In my view the key variable is the presence of external threats that encourage state formation. Meiji Japan, perhaps the leading historical example of rapid industrialization and state formation, was spurred by very real threats from European powers. Korea and Taiwan saw both state capacity and economic growth as key strategies to maintain independence from external, existential threats. They both faced hostile neighbors that claimed to be the sole legitimate government of the nation. These threats put pressure on elites to reduce the corruption of the state apparatus.


If the Asian cases show that supposed prerequisites such as a prior democratic history or a liberal political tradition are not necessary to develop consolidated democracies, this should offer optimism about the prospects of a future “fourth wave” of democracy. The caveat is that the type of growth seems to have been at least as important as the fact of growth, and this points us back toward favorable internal conditions of economic structure. The Northeast Asian economies turned resource-poverty into an advantage; the Southeast Asian economies did not squander what resource wealth they had.

The international environment seems to have been the factor that led to such fortunate decision-making. Cold War conditions provided a security umbrella and a framework for extensive American engagement that no doubt had a significant impact. To be sure, democratization occurred in some cases despite, not because, of American pressure. But the broader importance of having a democracy-supporting foreign policy seems to be a clear lesson from these vignettes.

Tom Ginsburg is Visiting Professor of Law, University of Chicago and Professor of Law and Political Science, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. This E-Note is based on his article in the Winter 2008 issue of Orbis, which contains a special selection of essays on democratic transitions.

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