OXFORD, England — The abrupt resignation of Thailand’s Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is but another sign of a disturbing paradox: the more “vigorous” Asian democracy becomes, the more dysfunctional it is.
There is no shortage of examples. The attempt by opposition parties last year to impeach South Korea’s President Roh Moo Hyun on the flimsiest of excuses; Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian’s inability to pass legislation through a parliament controlled by the opposition Kuomintang; Philippine President Gloria Arroyo’s stalemated first term and the repeated rumors of looming coup attempts against her: each bears testimony to a form of democratic paralysis in Asia.
If deadlock and confusion were the only results, such political impasses might be tolerable. But chronic stalemate has confronted many Asian democracies with the threat of being discredited, a potential for violence and the prospect of economic decline.
Indeed, the precedents of democratic immobility in Asia are hardly encouraging. For example, since Pakistan’s creation in 1947, partisan divisions ensured that no elected government has been able to serve its full term. So Pakistanis grimly learned to accept military rule as their destiny.
The problem in Asia often arises from something the French call “cohabitation” — an awkward arrangement by which a directly elected president must co-exist with a parliament controlled by a rival party or parties. The United States and Europe’s mature democracies may function well enough with the “checks and balances” of divided government (though the Republicans’ bid to impeach U.S. President Bill Clinton eight years ago might suggest otherwise), but in Asia the failure to bestow executive and legislative powers on a single institution is usually a terrible drawback.
This seems especially true when a government tries to enact radical economic or political reforms. The elected president wants to act, but the assembly refuses to approve the necessary laws. Or vice versa.
The pattern begins in parliamentary deadlock. Incompetent leaders blame legislatures for their failures; legislators blame presidents from rival parties. Finger pointing replaces responsibility, fueling popular demand for a strongman (or woman) who can override political divisions. Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s brief “emergency rule” in the 1970s was partly the result of such institutional dysfunction.
Divided government also plays into the hands of Asia’s separatists. At a critical moment for Sri Lanka’s peace process, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was so incensed by the policies of her political rival, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, that she sacked three of his ministers and called elections almost four years early. The only people who seem to have benefited from this democratic division are the murderous Tamil Tigers. Similarly, in Nepal, a Maoist insurgency has taken advantage of divisions between the king and Parliament to gain control of much of the countryside.
True, Asian democracies, however unstable, are preferable to autocracies, whether military, as in Pakistan and Myanmar, or communist, as in China and Vietnam. But the danger in a weakened democracy is not merely blocked legislation and ineffective government. Ambitious but thwarted presidents are easily tempted to take unconstitutional measures; after all, they reason, the people elected them directly. The same is true of some prime ministers. Indeed, one of the causes of the protests that led to the resignation of Thailand’s Thaksin was the accusation that he was weakening his country’s democratic traditions in favor of personal rule.
Given these precedents, perhaps Asian policymakers should consider the merits of doing away with “cohabitation” and adopting systems where electoral victory translates into real power. Of course, parliamentary political systems are far from perfect. Neither Singapore nor Malaysia, where ruling parties have long dominated the parliaments, has a political culture as healthy as in Taiwan or South Korea.
But in parliamentary democracies such as Japan and India, an elected leader runs the country until the day his or her party or coalition loses its legislative majority. This means that governments are judged not by their ability to outmaneuver legislatures, but by the quality of their policies. This seems to be a more efficient — and politically more stable — form of democracy than the unhappy cohabitation that produces such ugly confrontations of the type seen across the region.
For U.S. President Abraham Lincoln was right: a house divided against itself cannot stand. In many Asian democracies, only institutional reconstruction will prevent collapse.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.