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Reimagining Social Democracy in Asia: The Search for a New Welfare Model

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

The special edition of Socdem Asia Quarterly builds on the outputs and discussions from the Socdem Asia Regional Conference with the similar theme, “Reimagining a New Welfare Model in Asia” in April 13-16, 2018 in Cebu City, Philippines. It aims to broaden and deepen the discourse to Socdem Asia partners. Five national papers were solicited, which delve on specific topics covered by the regional framing paper.

The collection is an abridged version of the regional framing paper that tackles the history and development of social democracy in Asia, the rise and fall of progressive forces in the region, and the challenges and prospects in bringing about an Asian social welfare model.

Born in a context of failing democracy and vanguardist socialist movement, Akbayan (Citizen’s Action Party) in the Philippines pursues a party narrative of participatory democracy and participatory socialism. The paper navigates through Party discourse and debate as Akbayan carves out its niche in the Philippine political system dominated by traditional elites on the one hand and extremist left on the other.

As Rafaela David and Marlon Cornelio of the Akbayan explain in the Quarterly, “Recognizing the trappings of elite democracy that emerged after the dictatorship, Akbayan still saw the emerging democratic spaces as arenas for contestation. Akbayan saw the possibility of a transformation of elite democracy into a participatory and egalitarian one.”

Far from being captured by national-level politics alone, the authors argue, ‘Akbayan has furthermore strived to bring together “patches of greens”, or model local governments that promotes progressive governance and social welfare.’ This way, the progressive Philippine party hopes, aims to bring about a more sustainable shift in the country’s overall narrative of development and political economy over the longrun.

Akbayan’s experience is not unique and mirrors the task of establishing progressive parties in democratically challenged, elite-captured and extremist-laden politics in the region. Long polarized between “red” and “yellow” shirts, Thailand has been captured by a military coup. As calls of reestablishment of a democratically elected government rise, the country sees the prospect of the emergence of new political forces carrying the banner of social democratic principles. The Future Forward Party and the Commoners Party are building muscle to contest in the next election. What are in the top agenda of these emerging forces?

“No matter how many times they were charged, some scholars and activists still try to campaign against the military dictatorship -- online and offline,” Thai student activist Rackchart Wong-Arthichart writes for the Quarterly, underlying the resilience of the democratic opposition in the country despite the extremely repressive political environment under the junta, with newly-formed FFP and the Commoners Party each pushing for an alternative vision of a pluralistic, liberal, and democratic society, though the former is more focused on post-materialist values, while the latter is dedicated to strengthening grassroots voices.

The Nepali Congress is proud of its long tradition in fighting for democracy and building a democratic socialist country. Recently, the once indomitable Party faced a retreat in the 2017 national and local elections. While the union of the Maoist and Communist parties is seen as the bearer of bad fortune, the paper argues that Nepali Congress itself delivered their electoral defeat in failing to fulfill its promises and losing touch of its grassroots membership.

As Sanjaya Mahato, a member of Nepali Congress party and researcher at the Social Science Baha, explains in the Quarterly, “The massive landslide electoral loss of Nepali Congress and its weak electoral performance raised many questions in the party leadership, its principle and party organizations…This has provided Nepali Congress an opportunity to re-think their party principle and policies, renovate their organizations.”

The Mongolian People’s Party is the oldest political party in Mongolia founded in 1920. Winning 65 out of 76 members in Parliament, MPP made a comeback with an overwhelming victory in 2016 elections. Back in government, MPP aims at implementing integrated policies towards creating human-centered social welfare, pro-development economic growth, and citizen-oriented public governance system for its country and people’s prosperity and progress. As in other countries, MPP is faced with rising populism and declining trust for political parties compounding the roadblock for poverty alleviation and social service delivery.

As Tserenjamts Munkhtseteg (Mu Ki), an adviser to the General Secretary of the Mongolian People’s Party (MPP), explains in the Quarterly, “Populist politics, via social media platforms, is turning into digital populism.” As he warns, “due to the influence of a strongman authoritarian leadership in both its neighbors, Russia and China, there is a growing support among Mongolians for a strong leader and a presidential government...”

The Pakatan Harapan (Coalition of Hope), meanwhile, has secured a historic victory against the United Malays National Organization’s Barisan National (National Front), which has dominated Malaysian politics for more than half a decade. Reimagining Malaysia presents both a personal and a shared dream for Malaysia from the imagination of a young politician and the Democratic Action Party.

As Yeo Bee Yin, member of Malaysian Parliament (representing Democratic Action Party) for Bakri in Johor, explains in the Quarterly, “Malaysians have shown to the world that despite insurmountable injustice and gross abuse of power, democracy and the power of the will of the people of Malaysia, prevailed eventually.” The significance of the opposition coalition’s victory can’t be understated: “For the first time in the history of Malaysia, there’s a change in the federal government; and most important of all, it was done without bloodshed,” she explains.

The Quarterly also includes longer and more contemplative essays on reinvention of social democracy by Asia. As Joel Racamora of the Transnational Institute argues in the Quarterly, the region has become the new laboratory for social democratic experimentations, since after all “Southeast Asian economies have reached a stage where it’s now possible to pay for a welfare state.”

Francis Isaac of Government Watch (G-Watch), meanwhile, interrogates the importance of social democracy in Asia, because it’s a framework that explains how “democracy can be best realized not only [by] focusing on free and competitive elections, but also by ensuring the fair distribution of income and the equitable enjoyment of society’s resources.”

The Quarterly includes a recent speech by Liew Chin Tong (Democratic Action Party), recently appointed deputy Defense Minister of Malaysia. By bringing together leading progressive policy-makers and activists from across Asia, the latest edition aims to inspire and shape the ongoing debate on best models of welfare state in Asian societies.
Richard Javad Heydarian is an academic, policy advisor, and author. He teaches political science and international relations at De La Salle University, and as a specialist on Asian geopolitical and economic affairs he has written for or interviewed by Aljazeera English, Asia Times, BBC, Bloomberg, The New York Times, The Hufftington Post, among other leading publications.

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