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Asia’s Democratic Landscape: The Shifting Sands of Progressive Politics

Monday, 2 May 2016

coverWithout a question, Asia is a diverse lot. In fact, right until the modern times, people in the region, who constitute much of the world’s population, didn’t identify themselves as part of the same spatial community or episteme. Beginning with the Greeks, who divided the world between the ‘civilized’ Hellenistic world and the ‘Barbarian’ rest, including the towering Persian Empire, there emerged in the Western imagination an Orient, embodied by a distinct Asiatic world.


After centuries of humiliation under the yoke of Western colonial powers, Asia has gradually reconstituted itself, emerging as the world’s most dynamic and promising region. Yet, despite decades of almost uninterrupted economic expansion and political consolidation, the region is still struggling to establish mature, inclusive democracies.


On one hand are the Philippines and India, among the two oldest non-Western democracies. They have stood as a strong testament against suspect ‘Asian values’ argument, which erroneously contends that ‘liberal democracy’ is a Western construct, thus alien to the supposed fundamental, ahistorical values of the Orient.


D.K.Giri, the Secretary General of Association of Democratic Socialism (ADS), underscored how India’s most outstanding achievement’ is its ability to preserve a ‘parliamentary democracy, followed uninterruptedly since 1947 within the constitutional framework.’ Clearly, though India, as in other developing democracies in Asia, is still grappling with humongous developmental challenges, which threaten to undermine the fabric of its democratic institutions. ‘Indian Democracy has failed to liberate a vast number of people in its rural areas from object poverty, destitution, hunger, oppression and exploitation,’ D.K. Giri laments.

Yet the situation beckons progressives and social democrats, who have ‘greater ideological appeal, [and] enjoy popularity’ to leave a larger footprint in the Indian democratic landscape, though that means that, in light of their lack of optimal self-organization, they may have to ‘rely on the Congress and Communists, but ideologically they would lead, as only their platform can counter’ that of the ruling right-wing partyBharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which controls majority seats, 312 out of 545, in the Lok Sabha (the Lower House).


In the Philippines, where six years of reformist politics under the Benigno Aquino administration has brought about a semblance of stability and prosperity, there are still major concerns vis-à-vis the absence of inclusive development and the tenuous foundations of the country’s democracy. The rise of strongmen like Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who is currently running for the vice-presidency, and Rodrigo Duterte, the firebrand mayor of Davao City, who is eying the presidency, underscores the rising tide of ‘autocratic nostalgia’ and ‘democratic despair’ in the Southeast Asian country.


As Francis Isaac, a researchee based at De La Salle University (Manila), argues, “supposed economic benefits were hardly felt by the poor, since vital resources remain concentrated among the more affluent segments of Philippine society”Wealth concentration is also reflectws in the country’s ‘elite democracy’, where, as Isaac writes, “in the last 2013 elections, six major political parties competed with one another, while 124 minor parties vied for 58 reserved party-list seats in the House of Representatives.”


Nonetheless, the gains of recent years, particularly good governance initiatives such as the Seal of Good Local Governance (SGLG) and the Performance Challenge Fund (PCF), along with grassroots mobilizations such as Movement Against Dynasties (MAD) and the rise of progressive politicians such as Leni Robredo, who is a strong contender for vice-presidency, provide ample opportunity for necessary political reforms to deepen Philippine democracy.


Meanwhile, Japan, Asia’s first industrialized country and among its most mature democracies, has witnessed the emergence of a powerful coalition of conservatives, led by the Prime Minsiter Shinzo Abe, who has vowed to overcome the country’s “postwar regime”. As Sven Saaler, resident representative of FES in Tokyo argues, “Abe’s slogan implicitly negates also the democratic principles of postwar Japan and turns against the American influence in contemporary Japanese society.”


Under its ‘Abenomics’ reforms, the government has also pushed neo-liberal measures such as the revised Worker Dispatch Law, which, as Saaler argues, ‘mak[es] it now possible to employ temporary/agency workers indefinitely as ”irregularly employed”.’

Growing discontent over the government’s failure to turn around a flailing economy, however, has provided an impetus for new political alliances, with ‘factions of the Japan Innovation Party (previously Japan Restoration Party) decid[ing] in late 2015 to align themselves with the liberal-progressive Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), Japan’s largest opposition party’, providing some room for progressive to make political inroads.


There are, of course, some encouraging bright spots in Asia. Today, Indonesia, the largest Muslim-majority country, stands as among the only two liberal democracies in Southeast Asia. Indonesia is also a strong rebuke to misguided arguments vis-à-vis the supposed incompatibility between democracy and islam. The rise of charismatic president Joko Widodo, affectionately known as “Jokowi”, portends a more grassroots-based, populist form of progressive politics, which holds the promise of overhauling the country’s oligarchic order.


But a precipitous slowdown in global economy, particularly in demand for basic commodities, which constitute the bulk of Indonesia’s exports, has prompted the Jokowi administration to come up with a series of measures to counter anemic economic growth. But much of the government’s counter-cyclical measures have been based on private-sector-driven investment and infrastructure development, which, according to  Muhammad Ridha of University of Indonesia, strengthens the national oligarchy and threatens the indigent communities, best reflected in a disturbing spike in coercive eviction and land dispute.


In 2015, Ridha writes, “there were 252 cases of social conflict over land”, with about  28% of them related to infrastructural development projects. He expects that this year “conflict over land will not subside but potentially increase.” Yet, there are signs that the Jokowi administration is willing to more robustly engage with and involve the grassroots movements that propelled it to power in high-level decision-making. Thus, Ridha argues, this year “we might find interesting maneuver, and experimentation, among social movement to strengthen their political organization as part of struggling vis-a-vis the ruling class.”


In Nepal, meanwhile, a natural calamity, exacerbated by a brutal months-long Indian blockade, has spurred much-needed political reforms. As Rajju Malla Dhakal, Executive Director of SACEPS Nepal, argues, the major earthquake in the country “provided impetus to the political parties to speed up the constitutional process to pave way to a stable politics that can spearhead the rehabilitation and reconstruction and pick the threads of long stalled development processes.” 


And there are signs that the progressive Left has increasing room for maneuver, especially with the “emergence of CPNUML as an alternative democratic force, [which] has helped balance the democratic [balance of] power in Nepal,” as the country moves towards a more inclusive and effective form of federalism, which takes into account the legitimate demands of the Madhes people.


Not far away, in the troubled Pakistan, where a flailing economy, proliferation of extremism, and sectarian tensions have collectively placed tremendous pressure on the country’s democratic institutions, “The political landscape of Pakistan has greatly changed in the last few months and it may even change faster in the coming years”, Kishwar Naheed of International Islamic University (Islamabad) argues. Amid such political indeterminacy, the country may soon reach a critical juncture, where the political elite will face a choice between effective governance and democratic deepening, on one hand, or a failed state and breakdown of order, on the other.


This edition of Socdem Asia Quarterly brings together diverse views from leadings activists and scholars across Asia, shedding light on the challenges of and opportunities for democratization and inclusive development.


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