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Democracy Still Fragile in Asia

Updated On: Jan 16, 2007

Elections In Asia: Making Democracy Work? Edited by Simon S.C. Tay and Yeo Lay Hwee Singapore Institute of International Affairs and Marshall Cavendish International (Singapore), $24.90

THE question mark at the end of this book's title alerts the reader to its purpose, which is to question whether Asian elections are furthering democracy in Asia.

The elections in question were those held in 2004 and early 2005 in IndonesiaMalaysia, thePhilippinesThailandHong KongSouth KoreaTaiwan and India. The largely peaceful and successful conduct of those elections led the periodical, The Economist, to assert that democracy had become Asia's 'second miracle', the first being the region's economic success.

The contributors do not doubt the importance of the elections, or of elections generally, because without these barometers of public opinion, it is difficult to speak of democracy at all. However, they question whether the mere conduct of elections is sufficient to entrench democracy. In a nutshell, they argue that it is not.

Some of them note pointedly that unless elections are accompanied by economic development, political stability and effective governance including the crucial battle against corruption, Asian populations might well question the worth of elections themselves. And disenchantment with elections would undercut belief in democracy.

For example, Ms Mely Caballero-Anthony argues in a hard-hitting paper on the Philippines that the preponderance of money politics, and the persistence and allegations of electoral fraud, bedevil that country's attempts to consolidate democracy, although the Philippines is a pioneering Asian democracy.

The first elections for a Philippine assembly took place as early as 1907, and democracy was restored in 1986 after the downfall of president Ferdinand Marcos.

Noting how political instability stalks the country in spite of a vibrant civil society, she calls for strong and credible institutions to protect the country from the 'vicious cycle of being a weak state, with a corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy and crippled economy'.

Only by consolidating democracy so that it makes a real difference to the lives of ordinary millions can the Philippines 'persuasively demonstrate that democracy does matter'.

Ms Chyungly Lee strikes a similarly cautionary note in her chapter on Taiwan. She breaks ranks with the customary, and sometimes almost irritatingly euphoric, celebration of democracy as a virtue setting the island politically apart from China.

She argues, in effect, that democracy is what democracy does.

Civil society is important, of course. However, one of the greatest concerns in Taiwan today is whether economic insecurity and social instability caused by weakening governance 'might ironically be impediments to future democratic consolidation if state-society relations remain purely driven by electoral politics'.

Mr Michael Vatikiotis is more hopeful about Indonesia where, in 2004, citizens were galvanised into taking greater interest in politics because they were going to vote directly for their president for the first time in their history.

This zest contributed to the electoral success of the gracious Dr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whose 'extraordinary mass appeal was derived in part from the fact that he was not one of the Jakarta elite - and was in fact spurned by them'.

His promise of both a caring and a strong government resonated in a country where ordinary people yearned for accessibility to those in power but also for leaders who would have the strength to lead the country forward even as they listened to what the people had to say.

Yet, even in Indonesia, old traditions die hard, and the President appears to be 'hamstrung by the machinations of elite politics in the legislature', Mr Vatikiotis observes. As a remedy, he calls for strengthening political institutions - the office of the president, his relationship with Parliament, and the conventions of parliamentary politics - so that democracy can be consolidated.

The alternative could well be popular disenchantment with the democratic process, particularly since the presidential election was a direct one.

The strength of this book, which also examines the latest political controversy in Thailand and the changing nature of electoral politics in Malaysia, is to serve as a reminder that elections are not an end in themselves but are a means to a larger good: the formation of governments that can deliver on the aspirations that they themselves have aroused.

In an epilogue, editors Simon S.C. Tay and Yeo Lay Hwee - the first, chairman of, and the second, senior research fellow at, the Singapore Institute of International Affairs - worry whether there will be nostalgia for a return to unelected leadership in Asia if 'democracies struggle to govern'.

They conclude that most Asians probably do not long for autocrats or juntas, but pay heed to the sense that there is growing impatience 'in getting democracy to work'.

The most dramatic example of that possibility is, of course, the military coup in Thailand, which occurred when this book was in its final stages of publication.

The editors observe that while, from a liberal democratic standpoint, the coup represents a step back for Thai democracy, many Thai intellectuals andBangkok residents believe ironically that the military intervention is the only way to save democracy in their country.

This divergence confirms the book's main point, that 'democracy remains fragile in Asia'.

The book is a salutary reminder of the adage that the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

The writer is a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies


A MEANS TO AN END

The strength of this book...is to serve as a reminder that elections are not an end in themselves but are a means to a larger good: the formation of governments that can deliver on the aspirations that they themselves have aroused.

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