Is democracy in trouble in Asia? From the removal of an elected president by less than constitutional means in the Philippines to an attempt to remove another sitting president in Taiwan to questions concerning the eligibility of the presumptive prime minister in Thailand to a near-coup by the ruling party in Japan and “premature lame duckism” in South Korea to disturbing political instability in Asia’s newest and most fragile democracy, Indonesia, the democratic process seems under attack — and many point to last fall’s events in Florida to argue that, even after over 200 years, kinks remain.
Fortunately, with a few notable exceptions, one can argue that recent events merely represent democracy — “the worst form of government, except for all the others,” as Winston Churchill once observed — very much in progress, and not in serious peril. The key point is that, so far at least, the political process and its self-correcting mechanisms still generally work. And, while some Asian leaders took delight in making barbed remarks about the need for overseas observers at U.S. elections, most comments came from officials who remain unprepared to submit themselves to a similar test of the people’s will.
The Florida experience nonetheless should remind Americans that democracies are not perfected overnight and need constant nurturing and fine-tuning. That fine-tuning is very much in evidence in many of Asia’s emerging democracies today. Efforts by nations like Thailand to root out corruption, for example, while causing some short-term pain and disruption, augur well for the future of democracy there. Others would still do well to follow the Thai model, despite its obvious imperfections and growing pains.
Charges of government corruption were also behind Philippine President Joseph Estrada’s ouster. George Bernard Shaw once said that “democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.” Surely the Philippine people deserved better than they were receiving from “Erap.” Nonetheless, the abandonment of the constitutional process, no matter how seemingly justified, provides cause for concern, especially given the decision of the Philippine military to unilaterally interpret “the will of the people” and abandon its commander in chief. The good news is that Estrada’s constitutional successor, Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, assumed the presidency and the Supreme Court gave credence to the process. Any other outcome would have represented an even more serious setback for Philippine democracy. Estrada’s current insistence that he did not resign but only “temporarily stepped aside” provides the Philippine Senate with an opportunity to complete the constitutional process by officially finding him guilty and thus clearing the way for civil prosecution as well.
Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian’s political travail demonstrates that it is much easier to lead an opposition than to run a government. From the viewpoint of this observer, however, Taipei’s political “crisis” (which appears to have been temporarily put on hold) is primarily about hard-ball politics and power-sharing; thus far, it falls well short of being a constitutional crisis. It has, however, severely limited Chen’s ability to move his government forward and has affected consumer and investor confidence in Taiwan. It has also helped to guarantee a lack of progress in cross-strait interaction, since Beijing is taking obvious pleasure in Chen’s struggles and is unlikely to do anything that would earn him points domestically. However, should Chen’s solution be to form an alliance with opposition Kuomintang factions still sympathetic to former President Lee Teng-hui, Beijing may wish it had been more responsive to Chen earlier.
In Japan, infighting among Liberal Democratic Party factions is hardly anything new, although both the nature of former LDP Secretary General Kato Koichi’s late-November challenge to Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and its dismal failure took many by surprise. While the LDP clings to control, few expect Mori to still be in charge at summer’s end (if he lasts that long), as the democratic process plays itself out in the face of the LDP’s inability or unwillingness to pursue genuine internal political and economic reform. The democratic process works slowly in Japan, but it works.
Meanwhile in South Korea, President Kim Dae Jung is being treated like a lame duck by opposition politicians who are already looking ahead (perhaps a bit overconfidently) to their assumption of power in two years. While it is true that Kim seems more popular abroad than at home — witness his well-deserved Nobel Peace Prize — it remains to be seen which side will suffer more in terms of public support from the failure to develop a bipartisan approach to dealing with Seoul’s economic challenges and its predominantly one-way engagement policy toward Pyongyang.
All these “crises” appear manageable. This may not be the case in the country where the democratic process still appears most at risk — Indonesia — given President Abdurrahman Wahid’s mercurial actions and his failure to live up to promises to transfer significant authority over day-to-day operations to his vice president, Megawati Sukarnoputri (who remains largely untested herself). U.S. attempts to pressure Jakarta into holding an increasingly demoralized army accountable for past sins, while stressing the urgent need to disarm West Timor militias and handle other separatists more gently, may seem reasonable. But these well-meaning efforts will all be for naught if the democratic experiment in Indonesia fails. Conversely, if democracy takes hold in ASEAN’s pre-eminent capital — which remains possible, but is by no means assured — it could prove an irresistible force throughout the rest of Southeast Asia and beyond.
In light of this challenge, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush needs to reaffirm America’s commitment to the promotion of democracy and human rights in Indonesia, but should pursue this long-standing U.S. national objective in a manner that places priority on internal stability and territorial integrity. In the Philippines, Washington should use behind-the-scenes diplomacy to press for a renewed commitment to the constitutional process. Elsewhere, the Bush administration needs to remember that nurturing existing democracies is at least as important as trying to create or inspire new ones.
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