Commentary / World

A fragile time for democracy

by Curtis S. Chin and Meera Kumar

Special To The Japan Times

Here in the United States, the horrific shooting at a night club in Orlando, Florida, that killed 49 people has intensified the debate once again over the extent leaders must go to fight terrorism and gun violence. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, the contrasting responses of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump and their attacks on one another suggest that a mud-slinging showdown between the two would-be national leaders is on track.

And a world away, in the Philippines, the rhetoric surrounding the battle against terrorists and criminals is equally sensational. The one-time student of U.S. democracy has recently elected a leader of its own in political incorrectness.

Who would have thought a man who vowed to kill criminals and grant himself a presidential pardon, who boasts of being a womanizer, has joked about wanting to rape a missionary and talked of the killing of journalists, would win a popular election and become head of state. Such is the dramatic turn of events in the Philippines, a nation shaped by centuries of Spanish and then by decades of American colonial rule.

This July, Rodrigo Duterte, widely known as “Duterte Harry” for his no-holds-barred, crime-fighting reign as mayor of the city of Davao, will take the reins of government from Benigno Aquino, whose mother, ironically, restored democracy in the Philippines.

These days, it seems, it is “more American” in the Philippines.

The Southeast Asian nation, however, is not alone. The demand for strong leaders is evident everywhere. Witness the rise of Vladimir Putin in Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Xi Jinping in China, Viktor Orban in Hungary and Narendra Modi in India. Somewhat late to the party but no less striking is the rising popularity of Trump.

With the gradual increase in prosperity after World War II and the end of the colonial era, there was a notion, perhaps misguided, that the demand for freedom and democratic rights would follow a linear path. Today it would appear that people are increasingly ready to relinquish their rights for a measure of security. Fear and uncertainty are gripping the world and guiding a course that could lead to closed borders and markets, clampdowns on basic human rights and an erosion of empathy for the huddled masses still yearning to be free.

Fear and insecurity are a lethal combination. Leaders and would-be presidents are capitalizing on the frustrations of ordinary people and their understandable and increasing disgust with inequality, corruption, the concentration of wealth and, collectively, the feeling that citizens are not better off today and may well not be so tomorrow.

In the West, economic prosperity and the certainty that hard work will be rewarded has fallen prey to globalization and digitalization. Manufacturing shifted from the West to countries that offered cheap labor. Technology further disrupted industries.

More disruption is inevitable. Self-driving cars, robotic service personnel, artificial intelligence systems that replace financial analysts, paralegals and copy editors — the list goes on. A 2013 report out of the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford estimated that up to 47 percent of jobs are under threat of displacement by technology in the next 20 years. Add to this the potential impact of climate change, terrorism, the refugee crisis and pandemics, and the fear factor multiplies.

Across the world, political systems have performed poorly. In developing countries, governments are failing to provide jobs for growing populations. In developed countries, legions of underemployed face leaders who have not come up with a way to combat the displacement of the workforce as a result of technology and globalization.

Broken promises and failed policies on the part of the political actors have led many citizens to reject the democratic political system altogether. Calls go out in the United States, in Asia and elsewhere for strong leaders to revive the old order and make once-great nations “great again.”

Yet, no longer is the nation-state the only framework within which to work. Problems have to be solved in a global context. More than ever, our world needs bold leaders who also will double-down on multilateralism, and strengthen regional alliances and global organizations to coordinate policy responses. We also need an inclusive global digital agenda that ensures a role for human labor that is economically and politically feasible.

The belief that interdependency can be defeated by isolationist politics is misleading. Building walls and imposing trade barriers will make the people they are meant to protect less adaptive and resilient than those outside them. They will weaken economies as they breed resentment and leave us ill-prepared for global threats that demand cooperation to solve.

In this time of fear, when people are willing to give up their power to the strongman — or strongwoman — democracy itself is under siege. But the forces they are seeking protection from are far beyond the abilities of one person to control. They will give up their freedom in exchange for security and they will end up with neither.

It is never too late for leaders or would-be leaders, and the people who support them, to change.

Curtis S. Chin, a former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of the advisory firm RiverPeak Group. Follow him on Twitter at @CurtisSChin . Meera Kumar, a New York-based freelance writer, was formerly with the ADB. Her commentary has appeared in journals throughout Asia.

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