Asian Democracies: The Half-Full Glass

The transition to democracy in many Southeast Asian nations has been striking. The upcoming or recent national elections in Indonesia, Taiwan, South Korea and the Philippines highlight their quick turnaround from authoritarian rule. The last two decades have been marked by positive change in the region, but the inherent pitfalls of new democracy remain. Among the slew of candidates for election in each of these nations, incumbents included, some have dubious pasts, some have survived assassination attempts, and some are simply a joke, suggests this article in the Straits Times. These candidates represent the broader choice voters now have, but do the shortcomings of a few herald a problem in democracy as a whole? This article examines the state of democracy and asks if its arrival in South Asia has changed anything for the better. “Democracy doesn't make people wise or good,” the author concludes. “But it's a better range of choices than the average dictatorship offers.” In the end, she suggests, despite shaky political processes, the proverbial glass is still half-full. –YaleGlobal

Asian Democracies: The Half-Full Glass

Gwynne Dyer
Monday, May 10, 2004

TWENTY years ago, the Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan and South Korea were all dictatorships. Now they are all democracies, and between March and July this year they will all have held national elections.

However, the President of South Korea is under impeachment, the President of Taiwan was almost assassinated, an alleged war criminal has been nominated by Indonesia's biggest party as its presidential candidate in the July 5 election, and a former movie star and high-school dropout who just mumbles a few well-rehearsed sentences before breaking into a pop song at his rallies is the leading challenger for the Philippine presidency in the election today. Is this glass half empty or half full?

Mr Fernando Poe Jr ('Da King') makes California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger look like a serious politician. 'He has nothing between the ears,' said one Filipino journalist.

He's an old drinking buddy of Joseph 'Erap' Estrada, the film star president who was toppled in 2001 by street protests against the massive corruption of his administration. Now 'Erap' is on trial for plundering public funds.

However, the same wealthy families who backed Estrada have now thrown their support behind 'Da King', including Mrs Imelda Marcos, widow of dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

If Mr Poe wins, he will almost certainly pardon Estrada, and the few hundred families who control 95 per cent of the wealth in a country of 80 million people will be safe once more.

But their position was not in great danger under incumbent President Gloria Arroyo either. She was not personally corrupt (being wealthy already), but the general corruption that causes an estimated 40 per cent of the national budget to end up in the pockets of officials hardly declined at all under her rule. Small wonder so many of the Filipino poor are inclined to vote for someone who at least seems like one of them.

It's a hell of a way for democracy to end up in the country that pioneered the concept of non-violent democratic revolution in Asia 18 years ago.


IT'S not a lot better in Indonesia, where a similar revolution turfed out long-ruling dictator Suharto only six years ago.

His old party, Golkar, emerged as the biggest winner in parliamentary elections on April 5. It has now nominated Mr Wiranto, army head in the final Suharto years, as its presidential candidate - even though he's accused of sponsoring atrocities in Timor Leste in 1999.

Then there is South Korea, where President Roh Moo Hyun faces impeachment on charges of election violations and corruption as a result of a vote in March in the outgoing parliament.

And Taiwan, where President Chen Shui-bian suffered an abdomen wound in an assassination attempt just before the election on March 20, which he then won by the narrowest of margins, supposedly on a sympathy vote. The opposition has accused him of faking the incident, but unless overturned by a recount scheduled for today, he will be in office for another four years.

So what was the point of it all? Between 1986 and 1998, every one of these countries overthrew corrupt and oppressive dictatorships, mostly by non-violent public protests. But how much has really changed? Not nearly enough, would be most people's answer: The glass is half empty.

But who ever believed democracy would automatically end poverty and corruption (in the Philippines and Indonesia) or political chicanery (in South Korea and Taiwan)? Democracy doesn't make people wise or good. It's just a better tool than any of the available alternatives to choose people who are wiser and better to run our affairs - but we mustn't expect miracles.

In the end, Filipinos will probably re-elect Mrs Arroyo by a narrow margin, partly because she really is wiser and better than 'Da King' (it isn't hard) - and partly because she has just spent about US$25 million (S$43 million) in public funds to create temporary jobs in poor areas.

And while President Megawati Sukarnoputri will probably lose the Indonesian presidential election because of her lacklustre leadership, the likely victor is not Mr Wiranto but another former general with a much better reputation, Mr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

The assassination attempt against Mr Chen was almost certainly genuine - would you hire someone to shoot at you with a handgun while you're in a moving car and just graze your abdomen? - and the opposition is now awaiting the outcome of the vote recount.


THE impeachment charges against South Korea's Mr Roh were a cynical political ploy by the opposition parties, which were duly punished by the voters. The liberal Uri Party, which supports Mr Roh but had only 49 seats in the outgoing National Assembly, won 152 seats in the mid-April parliamentary elections, giving it a slim majority and guaranteeing Mr Roh's survival.

Sometimes the choices in a democracy are not great, nor do the voters always get it right. But it's a better range of choices than the average dictatorship offers, and people aren't stupid: They do get it right most of the time. The glass is half full.

The writer is a London-based independent journalist.

Copyright 2004 Singapore Press Holdings