These are times of trial — literally in the courts — for a growing number of Asia’s democracies. The list of major national political leaders in the region who have faced, or are about to face, criminal charges has grown so extensive that it is plausible to wonder whether democracy itself can survive in a number of these countries.
Perhaps the gravest allegations have been leveled at Bangladesh’s opposition leader Khaleda Zia, who has been charged with murder in a case going back many years. India’s former prime minister, Manmohan Singh, who lost power less than a year ago, is being questioned by prosecutors in connection with allegations of corruption in the privatization of coal mines under his government. Following a military coup that overthrew her democratically elected government, Thailand’s former prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, is facing charges of official malfeasance over rice subsidies.
Then there is the long-running saga of Malaysia’s opposition leader and former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. His conviction on sodomy charges will effectively ban him from politics for five years, at a moment when the opposition is posing the most serious challenge to Malaysia’s ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) since the country gained its independence from the British Empire in 1958. Moreover, Anwar’s daughter has now been detained for questioning the integrity of her father’s trial in a speech in the Malay parliament, in which she is an elected member in her own right.
Each of these politically tinged trials has different origins, of course. And each was or will be conducted in court systems that vary greatly in terms of their development and independence. Yet all of them have called into question, to varying degrees, the rule of law and the prospect for a democratic future in each country.
Singh’s questioning by government prosecutors is perhaps the least worrying case, because India’s democracy is rock-solid and its judiciary is fearsomely jealous of its independence. His supporters at home and abroad should have no fear for his rights, or that his case will become some political plaything to keep the opposition Congress party down. Indeed, the politically shrewd Prime Minister Narendra Modi is far too smart to even contemplate attempting to distort the investigation of Singh for partisan gain.
Sadly, fidelity to judicial independence and the rule of law cannot be guaranteed as thoroughly in the other cases. Bangladesh, the world’s fourth-largest Muslim democracy, has historically had a patchy record in this regard, suggesting scope for political intervention in the case against Zia, if only by officials eager to curry favor with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
Indeed, the two leaders’ mutual loathing is long and legendary. Each has been prime minister, and both have sought, while in office, to use the courts to keep the other out of power, even out of politics altogether — seemingly without regard to the cost. The murder charges leveled against Zia have already spurred protests, and could incite massive civil disturbances if a trial actually takes place, jeopardizing the economic success that the country has had under Hasina’s rule. And yet government prosecutors who are ultimately responsible to the prime minister are pressing ahead with the case.
Shinawatra’s looming trial in Thailand and Ibrahim’s repeat conviction in Malaysia lack even the fig leaf of judicial independence. Shinawatra’s overthrow by the military was clearly a bid by the country’s generals to end by force the electoral lock that she and her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra — himself a former prime minister who was deposed by a military coup in 2006 — have had on Thailand for almost 15 years.
So now the generals and their allies in the Bangkok elite seem determined to turn back the clock; Yingluck’s looming trial appears to be a signal that the Thaksins’ popularity rules out anything more than “managed” democracy in Thailand. But the current quiescence of the pro-Thaksin forces should not encourage anyone to think that the military can suppress Thai democracy forever or without a fight.
Sadly, Malaysia may soon become prone to the same type of violent protest and economic decline that have gripped Thailand in recent years. Here, it seems clear that UNMO’s political interests have been allowed to dictate that the country’s key opposition leader should be tried on charges that no real democracy that embraces the rule of law would even consider leveling, and convicted on evidence that no truly independent court would accept.
Political leaders in Thailand and Malaysia, and in other countries in the region, frequently tout the model pioneered by Singapore’s founder and longtime leader Lee Kuan Yew, who died last month. Yet the path on which both countries have embarked was not Lee’s path. Yes, Lee’s system enabled him to remain in power for 31 years, and he did use the civil — not criminal — courts to harry his opponents. But Lee, more importantly, also relied on elements of democratic contestation to ensure that meritocracy triumphed over patronage.
This formula underpinned the rapid consolidation of good government, based on rigorous standards of official conduct that limited the elite’s arbitrary power. Putting one’s opponents in the criminal dock seems unlikely to produce a similar result.
Diet member Yuriko Koike, a former defense minister and national security adviser, was chairwoman of the Liberal Democratic Party’s General Council. © Project Syndicate, 2015.
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