Promoting Social Democratic Thinking, Alternatives and Practices


The Network publishes its own quarterly, Socdem Asia Quarterly, which aims to reflect the discourse of the Network and the leading intellectuals across the region and beyond about most pertinent developments of concern to social democrats. The Quarterly expounds on policies, perspectives and lessons learned from social democratic political practice in the region as well as reflections and experiences from Social Democrats worldwide. Along with Quarterly, the Socdem Asia website offers Op-Eds, interviews, and editorial opinions on latest developments across Asia-Pacific to a broader audience.

Local Government and Participatory Democracy: The Quest for Grassroots Politics in Asia

One of the most interesting aspects of globalization is how it has paradoxically created greater demand for and appreciation of localization, that is to say: the growing focus on grassroots democratic participation, preservation of long-cherished cultural traditions, and an emphasis on identity preservation and authenticity in an era of accelerated change and hyper-competitiveness.  Despite all its shortcomings and vagaries, many countries continue to view electoral democracy, in its varying forms, as the ideological endpoint of human history. And all attempts at reforms, accordingly, are aimed at making liberal democracies more politically open, socially-inclusive and economically robust. 

The rising economic tide across Asia has gone hand in hand with greater demand for democratic participation and political empowerment by an expanding middle class population. The demand for clean and effective governance has become a central theme of public debates. And such expectations have not been confined to the national-central government alone. 

In rapidly developing regions such as Southeast Asia, a booming economy has coincided with an explosion in institutionalized corruption, bureaucratic red tape, and technocratic insulation from popular pressure. No wonder, there have been efforts at developing and/or adopting mechanisms to curb corruption, provide welfare and affordable services to marginalized or impoverished citizens; initiatives such as participatory/bottom-up budgeting as well as renewable energy experiments have become popular expressions of good governance in different countries, with some even gaining global recognition.

Across Southeast Asia, the issue of “local democracy” has become a focal point in discussions of governance, since, in recent years, many vibrant local government units, driven by principles of local democracy, have managed to provide more robust, effective, and participatory models of governance, which have been absent on the national level. Some of these local government figures such as Indonesia’s Joko Widodo (Jokowi) or South Korea’s Park Won-Soon eventually managed to win national and international acclaim, with Jokowi eventually rising to the Indonesian presidency. Gains and success stories on the ground, anchored by collaborative relations between elected leaders and their constituencies, have provided a rich tapestry of ideas and experiences, which can be applied to varying levels of governance, strengthen the democratization momentum across the region. 

And there are reasons for optimism. After decades of legislative standoff and politicking, there seems to be a positive shift in the political landscape of many Southeast Asian countries: the passage of landmark legislative measures such as the Reproductive Health law in the Philippines and the Law Against Domestic Violence in Timor Leste have raised hopes among many reformist and progressive forces in the region. 

Countries like the Philippines have also embarked on a high-profile anti-corruption initiative, which has, so far, led to the arrest of leading senators accused of embezzling public funds. Meanwhile, in Malaysia, a wave of political change took place in the last two general elections in 2008 and 2013, putting the opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Coalition) in power in several key states after 57 years of rule by the current regime.  In Indonesia, President Jokowi has confronted a stubborn oligarchy, which has sought to abolish local government elections in order to re-assert its grip on the Indonesia political system, weaken the bureaucratic reach of the new president, and block grass-roots efforts at reforming the country. 

The pattern of these political dynamics is clear: regimes across the region are being confronted by large-scale uprisings, in varying forms, facilitated by increased political awareness as well as the usage of social media technology. For social democrats, it is necessary to assess the nature and dynamics of these victories and struggles in order to draw the best possible lessons on how to confront anti-democratic forces and ensure sustained, successful lobbying for good governance initiatives in the region. 

Charismatic Democratization

Indonesia is not short of charismatic, dedicated local leaders, who have transformed the broader national political landscape, with Jokowi standing as the quintessential ‘local-goes-national hero’ of the Southeast Asian country’s inspiring democratization story. From Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja “Ahok” Purnama to Tri Risma Harini (Surabaya Mayor), Remigo Yolando Berutu (Regent of West Pakpak), F.X. Hadi Rudiyatmo (Mayor of Solo), Richard Louhenapessy (Mayor of Ambon), Indonesia boasts a wide range of innovative and dedicated local government leaders. 

The rise of these charismatic democrats has come in the aftermath of a decade-and-half-long democratic reform in Indonesia, after the demise of the Suharto strongman regime in late-1990s. But Indonesia’s democratization and political decentralization has been far from a smooth process. 

“The implementation of local autonomy, however, did meet its initial goals. In most of regions in Indonesia, the local autonomy, which was originally designed to improve governance in local areas to better accommodate local needs and improve welfare, turned out to be shattered by the interests of local elites through corruption, nepotism and collusion based on local elite family and political party,” argues Antonius Cahyadi, lecturer in Faculty of Law, University of Indonesia, in the Quarterly. “Like a virus, corruption, collusion and nepotism after the reform, did notonly take place in central government but also spread out to the local level. In effect, there was a decentralization of corruption. This had worsened the performance of local government and brought suffering to the people.” In short, political decentralization led to decentralization of the corrupt practices of the preceding regime. 

Nonetheless, Indonesia has made significant strides in its democratization journey, as exemplified by Jokowi’s meteoric rise. “One of the things regarded to be the success of Jokowi is when he opened the spaces for citizen participation in the governance. For example, at the time Jokowi had to relocate the street side peddlers in Solo, Jokowi used persuasive approach, oriented to the welfare of the citizen, thus not only the relocation went out smoothly but enthusiastically welcomed by the peddlers,” Cayhadi explains. “This is in contrast with most of the street peddlers’ relocation in Indonesia that usually are carried out in coercive manners and end up with violence. “ 

A key characteristic of the burgeoning reform movement in Indonesia, however, is its (precarious) reliance on charismatic leadership and various forms of populist politics. “The reform and initiatives toward good governance was started from the emergence of charismatic leaders supported by the people,” Cayhadi argues. “These new leaders develop creative approaches towards the creation of a system to enable good governance in their regions.” 

Obviously, there is a risk to this kind of personality-based reform. As the experience of Latin America poignantly illustrates, the main challenge of democratic populism is to ensure reforms are not bound by the whims and the longevity of the rule of a single charismatic leader. Translating leadership charisma into long-term systemic change in the country is crucial to engendering the spirit of reform into the institutional fabric of a specific country. But overreliance on a single or few charismatic leaders for quick and dramatic change tends to create an upsurge of soon-to-be-disappointed expectations, risking sorrow and disaffection if broader institutional constraints are not taken into consideration. This is why it is important for progressive leaders in Indonesia and elsewhere to ensure they stake their long-term legacy not on short-term quick-fixes and political theatrics, but instead dedicate themselves to enhancing the capabilities, autonomy, and accountability of state institutions. 

As for their supporters, it is also important for them to balance their expectations against the backdrop of the existing structure of political opportunity. In the end, true reform should be a dialectic outcome of a top-down since leadership and grassroots level mobilization on a sustained scale.  

The region’s other liberal democracy, the Philippines, has also been a beneficiary of local government successes, thanks to the dedication of progressive leaders such as Mayor Caesar Perez of Los Banos, Laguna, who have not shied away from combining discipline with constant consultation and collaboration with civil society groups. As a result, Perez’ constituency has emerged as a laudable green community, serving as a shining model for other local government units in the country and beyond. 

“As one of the champions in environmental management of municipal solid waste, he has the political will to fully enforce the ordinances on anti-littering, mandatory segregation of garbage, cleanliness of the premises, frontage of business and commercial establishments, and use of plastic bags only for wet goods,” Antonio Alcantara, an environmental expert at University of the Philppines (Los Banos), explains in the Quarterly. “In 2014 he encouraged the 13 lowland barangays to have their own vehicles for hauling their segregated biodegradable and residuals to the MCMRF (Material Recovery Facility).”

In more mature democracies such as Japan, there have also been growing efforts to expand avenues for participatory democracy and involvement of the broader citizenry and civil society group in the improvement of the community’s welfare. Since the introduction of the NPO ("Law to Promote Specified Nonprofit Activities") in 1998, there has been growing demand for non-profit groups to participate in delivering government-provided services as well as budget-making procedures. In the Ichikawa municipality, not far from metropolitan Tokyo, the citizens, under a progressive mayor and local leadership, pushed for the so-called “1% system”, derived from Hungary’s experience. 

“The Ichikawa case has three features. Fist, 1% of each inhabitant tax goes to non-profits.  Second, citizens vote which non-profits they can support. Third, tax payers can choose up to three organizations. The second feature is unique with the Ichikawa case, and is the leading example of participatory budgeting in Japan. The Ichikawa case started in 2005,” Akira Mtsubara, the president of the Coalition for Legislation to Support Citizens’ Organizations, Japan, who played an instrumental role in pushing for such reforms in Ichikawa, explains in the Quarterly. “The Ichikawa case has influenced the notion of public budgeting; the biggest impact was that the system support non-profits’ finance according to citizens’ needs. The model also spilled over to other municipalities – Ichinomiya, Oushu, Ohita, Eniwa, Yachiyo, Izumi, Ikoma, and Saga.”  

Persisting Challenges 

Living in the shadow of a highly securitized state, with the ruling establishment progressively marginalizing the democratic opposition, Malaysia is yet to restore local elections. And there are serious signs of democratic reversals in the country. Meanwhile, the South Asian region has also struggled to consolidate its democratic gains in recent decades, with macro-political instability constantly undermining efforts at introducing grassroots democratic participation.  

“Malaysia’s local level democracy existed only in the 1950s and 1960s. The three most prominent municipalities were George Town (Penang), Ipoh (Perak) and Malacca. However in 1965, local government elections were suspended following Indonesia’s policy of [Konfrontasi]…while the move was meant to be only temporary (the former  Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahman promising that the suspension would eventually be lifted) but the suspension has remained ever since,” explains Syerleena Abdul Rashid, a councilor for the Penang City Council (Malaysia) and a member of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), in the Quarterly. “Since 2008, the Penang State government tried to reinstate local elections but in August 2014 the Federal Courts struck down the motion – dashing all hopes. Many Malaysians observe democratization at the local level as a catalyst for improvement; countries like South Korean and Taiwan have often been cited as proven examples where democratization can improve the quality of life for many in the region.”

In other regions of Asia, particularly in South Asia, progressive forces are still struggling to bring about necessary changes. “The major challenge of governance in Nepal is the political instability that it has been suffering from since 1990s. The adoption of Constitution Assembly (CA) in Nepal was seen as the best mechanism for the broader participation of people in the formulation of policy but the Assembly has not been able to provide any lasting solution to the challenges besetting the Nepali state and people,” Meena Bhatta, lecturer at the Department of Conflict, Peace and Development Studies, Tribhuvan University, Nepal, explains in the Quarterly. “Nepal has not even conducted elections for the local government since 1997. The continual absence of locally elected representatives have ultimately distanced the state from the citizens and further marginalized the disadvantaged groups from their right to participate and decide upon the matters that directly and indirectly affect the local affairs.” 

Similar challenges have existed in Pakistan, a country that has gone through multiple political cycles, with civilian military leaders changing hands at the top of the political pyramid for decades without brining lasting changes to the political system. Local governments, meanwhile, struggle to re-assert their autonomy and fully reflect the aspirations of their immediate constituency. 

“In Pakistan, we had many years without national parliament and provincial legislatures but since the inception of local government institutions (LGIs) we have had mostly non-elected LGIs, filled instead with government nominated state functionaries,” explains M. Zahid Islam, the head of SANGAT- Development Foundation in Lahore, Pakistan. “The constitution of the country acknowledges elected local governments and ensures representation of women, working masses and the non-Muslim communities; it also declares the state’s obligation to make necessary laws to establish elected local governments in all provinces. Unfortunately this mandatory obligation, however, has been ignored in Pakistan, despite the fact that most of the mainstream political leaders have had a background in the local government level.”

This edition of the Quarterly comes on the heels of the “SOCDEM Asia Conference on Lessons and Best Practices on Local Democracy and Governance in the 21st Century”, which was conducted 2-3 December 2014 in Eastern & Oriental Hotel, Penang, Malaysia, bringing together like-minded, progressive politicians to discuss among each other valuable inputs and strategies to deliver good, effective governance to their constituencies, especially in areas where social democratic forces are (or are poised to be) in position of power. The event served as a crucial platform for sharing of social democratic alternatives, with the aim of consolidating these experiences and discussions into a broader roadmap for bottom-up reforms, which will be of utmost importance to progressives in and beyond the region. The Quarterly builds up on the conference by providing a range of essays and commentaries on local governance in Asia. 

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Richard Javad Heydarian is an academic, policy advisor, and author. He teaches political science and international relations at Ateneo De Manila University (ADMU), 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 Huffington Post, among other leading publications.