Local Government and Participatory Democracy: The Quest for Grassroots Politics in Asia (Part II)
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.
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. This is the second part of the Quarterly issue on local government and participatory democracy.
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