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.

Asian Democratization and Its Discontents: The Quest for Substantive Democracy

With an increasing proportion of Asia-Pacific nations embracing elections as an arbiter of political competition, and a mechanism for selection of political leaders, there is a palpable sense that the march towards democracy is very much alive and kicking.

In an era where China and India are seeking to regain their historical position (prior to the 18th century) as the world’s largest economies, with other smaller Asian countries such as Vietnam and Philippines featuring among the fastest growing markets for decades to come, there is a glimmer of hope that prosperity and democratization could move hand in hand as we enter the so-called “Asian Century”. After all, history tells us that massive economic transformation could serve as a powerful precursor for political change, as a burgeoning middle class together with new centers of power demand for greater accountability and effective governance from the traditional center.

As Diamond and Morlino (2004: 3) argue, democracy, at the minimum, has four basic elements: “(1) universal, adult suffrage, (2) recurring, free, competitive and fair elections, (3) more than one serious political party; and (4) alternative sources of information.” And there are some reasons for optimism. By any measure, Northeast Asian countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan bear relevant characteristics of modern, minimalist democracies, having managed to hold popular, free and fair elections in recent decades.

In Southeast Asia, countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia have shelved their autocratic past in favor of a new political future, notwithstanding the occasional outbursts of “autocratic nostalgia” among certain circles, while the Indochinese states of Thailand, Myanmar, and even Cambodia have tilted in the direction of political liberalization --flirting with democratic opening under the watchful gaze of the ancien regime.

Meanwhile, South Asia has been home to long-standing democracies such as India, with neighboring Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan managing -- in the last decade -- to stage relatively peaceful and democratic political transition through the ballot box. Sri Lanka, in turn, has been benefiting from an unprecedented ‘peace dividend’, as it tries to move past its tortuous history of civil war and internal divisions.

Nevertheless, the fate of democracy in Asia is far from assured, especially as the inexorable forces of economic integration -- breeding ever-greater uncertainty into labor markets and fueling regulatory rollback at an astonishing pace -- intensify longstanding schisms within the society: growing economic inequality feeding popular discontent, unfettered corruption affecting multiple levels of governance, and stubbornly high levels of poverty marginalizing large sections of the public.

“Globalization often means…a race to the bottom for wage levels, while capital flees from high-tax states in search of ‘tax holidays’ or even tax havens,” Malaysian Parliamentarian Liew Chin Tong and Singapore-based academic Ooi Kee Beng write in the Quarterly, pondering the nefarious impact of intensified market integration on Asian societies. “The economic programs of the mainstream parties representing the left and the right no longer differ in substantive matters or even in their manifest values.”

Worryingly, the region has seen the endurance of “electoral autocracies”, which have largely -- and with varying degrees of astuteness -- instrumentalized elections as a means for projecting a veneer of reform and openness, but in reality co-opting various sections of the society as well as the opposition -- not to mention foreign patrons -- to perpetuate an autocratic regime.

Democracy, after all, isn’t only about holding regular elections, as most Asian countries do to the pleasure of foreign observers eagerly in search of traces of political modernization in the East, but instead it is essentially the consolidation of the fruits of prior democratic opening -- achieved through either revolutionary upheavals, say Philippines’ 1986 Revolution, or pacted-transitions as in the end of the New Order in Indonesia. Democratic consolidation entails the (i) engendering of vertical and horizontal accountability into state institutions, (ii) guaranteeing basic welfare and civil liberties for the greater population, (iii) establishing civilian supremacy over the armed forces, and (IV) upholding the rule of law. None of this would be possible in absence of a strong, autonomous state, capable of protecting vulnerable sectors against the predation of more powerful forces and complemented by well-functioning and inclusive economic institutions, which equitably spread the fruits of prosperity to the far corners of the society. In short, as scholars such as Larry Diamond put it, substantive democracy requires a systemic deepening of the democratization process, whereby a vibrant civic culture co-exists with accountable, participatory governance. And this constitutes the major struggle for fulfilling an Asian democratic vision.

The Struggle Continues

Despite the incessant efforts of regional autocrats to use the manufactured discourse of “Asian Values” to stymie external criticism and justify internal repression, recent studies suggest that the desire for democracy is almost universal across the region. While Asian democracies such as Japan and the Philippines have suffered from decades-old economic sclerosis, there is little to suggest that more economically vibrant Asian autocracies, at least for now, have proven to be bastions of stability and resilience. Since many autocracies have sought legitimacy based on economic performance, rather than political participation and electoral accountability, they have shown to be much more vulnerable to systemic shocks during crisis period – forcing autocratic regimes to engage in short-term reforms that could neither guarantee social passivity nor long-term regime survival. (Nathan, 2012)

Yet, even among Asian democracies, the quest for substantive democracy is far from over. In fact, even the most established regional democracies such as Japan and the Philippines have seen the perpetual dominance of the old elite, despite the occasional rise of progressive forces amid the cyclical euphoria of change, say the rise of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in 2009 and the election of Benigno Aquino III in 2010.

After the DPJ’s brief hold on power (2009-2012), what Japan has seen is the return of the right, with ultra-conservative elements coalescing around the charismatic leadership of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has vowed to revive the Japanese economy as well as revise the peace constitution. Abe’s ascent to power has come hand in hand with the weakening of progressive forces in the Japanese parliament. As Japan expert Sven Saaler explains in the Quarterly, “No opposition party of relevant strength is left. Rather, the opposition is disunited and fragmented and, for the time able, seems unable to restrain the plans of the ruling coalition.”

As a result, Abe enjoys an unprecedented opportunity to overhaul the Japanese political system, as exemplified by his so-called Abenomics, which combines fiscal-monetary expansionary policies with structural reforms to revive the Japanese economy, as well as an aggressive push to make Japan a normal power by revising the constitution. The Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) strong performance in the most recent Upper House elections indicated the relatively strong resonance of Abe’s initial posturing.

“After the victory in the Upper House elections in July, it is likely that Abe will further push his real agenda - the overcoming of Japan's ‘postwar regime’," Saaler explains in the Quarterly. But it is still far from assured whether Abe will have enough popular support to execute a successful referendum to revise the constitution, while the negative regional repercussions of an assertive Japan could also weaken Abe’s hands at home and trigger a corresponding push-back by moderates. Thus, Saaler argues, “If his (transient) popularity wanes, he will most likely stick to concentrating on economic policies.”

In the Philippines, the Aquino administration has been responsible for a series of consequential reforms, which have injected a measure of stability into the economy as well as political institutions. Displaying sincerity in cracking down on corruption, ensuring stable economic policies, and ameliorating poverty, President Aquino has come to enjoy historic-high popularity, with approval ratings hovering around 70% half way into his administration – an astonishing achievement for any democratically-elected leader.

Despite incessant opposition from business and conservative groups, the Aquino administration has successfully pushed for the passage of important legislations, chiefly the Reproductive Health (RH) and Sin Tax bills. The former allows the Philippine state to exercise oversight over the country’s population growth as well as ensure the basic reproductive rights of women, while the latter allows the state to levy heavier taxes on tobacco for fiscal consolidation and healthy lifestyle promotion purposes.

Crucial to Aquino’s reformist agenda has been his willingness to accommodate progressive voices, with the Philippines’ leading Leftist group, the Akbayan Citizens’ Action Party, serving as an integral coalition-partner of the ruling Liberal Party.

“The passing of Akbayan’s priority bills owed itself in no small measure to the party’s being part of the political coalition in power,” Walden Bello, the leading representative of Akbayan at the Philippine Congress, explains in the Quarterly, “The party’s decision to support Aquino rested in particular on the president’s push to eradicate corruption and his poverty containment program via Conditional Cash Transfers (CCT), which aimed to break the cycle of poverty for millions of Filipinos.”

Nonetheless, Akbayan’s partnership with the ruling party has been fraught with ideological and policy-oriented differences. After all, Aquino not only hails from the traditional elite, but he has also adopted a largely pro-market economic agenda, which has disappointed many in the progressive circles. Despite Aquino’s crackdown on corruption and openness to incorporate some Leftist figures into varying organs of the state, the business-as-usual patterns of political behavior continue to shape the dynamics of governance in the country, much to the disappointment of some within the Akbayan party.

“Political reforms introduced since the 1986 overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship have created more ‘democratic space,’ but this has been very limited,” Bello argued in the Quarterly, lamenting the perpetuation of elite-driven politics in the country.

Recent months have also seen an explosion in public anger over revelations that suggest majority of lawmakers may have engaged in wanton misappropriation of public funds, specifically their Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), sparking massive protests that culminated in the August 26 “Million People March” rally in the iconic Luneta Park in the old city of Manila.

“The [PDAF] scandal triggered popular outrage that was unexpected in its intensity and longevity. A continuous stream of revelations has kept the scandal under the watchful gaze of the nation,” writes Filipino progressive Cecilia Pe Lero in the Quarterly. “On August 26, between 70,000-400,000 people attended mass gatherings across the country and beyond to protest against corruption, calling for the prosecution of implicated officials and the abolition of the PDAF.”

So far, the government has vowed to crack down on corruption and exact accountability from corrupt officials, with the Department of Justice expected to file multiple batches of complains against dozens of officials, legislators, and private individuals charged with malversation of public funds and corruption.

In the case of newly-established minimalist democracies such as Indonesia, there has been an intensifying debate over the long-term trajectory of the country’s democratic march, with many questioning whether there has been a complete and decisive break with the autocratic past. Are we witnessing reformasi by consolidating democratic gains, or instead witnessing a restorasi, whereby the old order has cleverly managed to hijack or co-opt electoral institutions to perpetuate its traditional interests, now within a new competitive environment?

On the one hand, some have argued that Indonesia has come a long way in ensuring competitive and fair elections for the top political leaders, forcing the armed forces back to the barracks, and establishing new institutions such as the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) to ensure accountability among officials, recently arresting Constitutional Court Justice Akil Mochtar for alleged graft.

In the Quarterly, Paskal Kleden, an Indonesia expert currently based in Georgetown University, argues that the de-politicization of the armed forces was crucial to Indonesia’s democratic transition. This has, Kleden argues, been achieved through two important elements: “First, it is the reformist element within the military consisting of Armed Forces Commander General Wiranto and then Chief of Staff of Socio-Political Affairs Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Second, Indonesia had a number of civilian experts (academics and activists) who had such high level understanding of military aspects that they were able to discuss on par with the military and were able to push for reform from the outside.”

On the other side of the debate, critics have raised concerns over the decentralization of corruption, now affecting all levels of government as opposed to Suharto era’s more centralized corruption. Despite all its deficiencies, Kleden argues the KPK has, since its formation in 2003, shown a healthy measure of political will, “investigating cases related to even the political inner circle including former Member of Parliament Muhammad Nazaruddin and former Minister of Sports and Youth Andi Mallarangeng both from the president’s Democrat Party.”

Amid an expanding democratic space, there is, however, growing concern over the endurance of the Pancasila principles, as religious tensions and fundamentalist impulses threaten the country’s long history of multiculturalism and tolerance. The civil society, a bedrock of civic activism and democratic politics, has also been hamstrung by new regressive legislations such as Law on Mass Organizations, which in principle intends to empower NGOs, but in practice “restraints and sanctions” national and international NGOs. This has major repercussions for Indonesia’s democratization, and as Kleden aptly puts it the new legislation raises a critical question: “Since CSOs and NGOs have played an important role during Indonesia’s transition phase, it has yet to be seen how their weakened financial and political capacity will affect the trajectory of Indonesia’s democratization process.”

A New Opening?

While Asian electoral democracies continue to battle for a more substantive form of participatory governance, international observers have been enchanted by political green shoots in staunchly autocratic states such as Myanmar and Cambodia.

In Myanmar, after decades of ironclad rule by the junta, which saw the violent suppression of not only the democratic opposition but also varying ethnic separatist movements, recent years have seen a qualitative shift in the posturing of the leadership: The generals have pushed for constitutional revisions, relaxed restrictions on the media, welcomed the participation of opposition forces, curtailed the dominance of military officials in the parliament, and opened up the economy to foreign investments. Ostensibly, Myanmar is going through a process of political liberalization, expanding the democratic space and instituting a new structure of political opportunity that could benefit the democratic forces in the medium- to long-run.

So far, Western powers as well as regional neighbors have welcomed Myanmar’s liberalization, hoping to influence the country’s political trajectory by sustained and multidimensional constructive engagement -- culminating in the visit of top European and U.S. officials to the country, with the iconic opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s (DASSK), who is currently a member of the parliament and a crucial figure amid the liberalization process, touring Western capitals after decades of house arrest and isolation.

But is this for real? Many critics have dismissed the recent reforms as purely cosmetic, a political charade designed to break the junta’s isolation and growing dependence on China. The ongoing political liberalization, critics contend, is simply an instrument to unshackle Myanmar from decades of economic stagnation, since improved relations with Western powers could mean the elimination of sanctions and a massive inflow in foreign investments. In short, what we are witnessing is simply a tactical short- to medium-term decision to ensure long-term regime survival.

As Arnold Tarrobago Villa, the Executive Director of Active Citizenship Foundation (ACF), argues in the Quarterly, the military continues to dominate the parliament, in addition to the security and intelligence organs of the state as well as much of the national economy. Despite the opposition National League for Democracy’s (NLD) astonishing success at the 2012 by-elections, which saw the long-suppressed party to win 43 out of 44 contested seats, up to 110 parliamentary members are directly appointed by the junta. And despite the abolition of state censorship of media, beginning in August 2012, Tarrobago Villa argues, “the culture of fear that has been built-up by 48 years of censorship cannot be unlearned in a fortnight.” So the media is now exercising self-censorship to avoid persecution.

Then, there is the more fundamental question of: Who calls the shots?

“Some analysts believe that it is still [the long-standing military dictator] Than Shwe who is calling the shots behind the scenes even while already very sick,” Tarrobago Villa argues in the Quarterly, explaining the ongoing debate over the power struggle within the regime. “But there are others who believe that a break in the mindset has finally occurred, which has allowed moderates and reformers to rise in the hierarchy.” What we increasingly see, by many accounts, is a fluid process of contestation within the junta as well as among varying political groups in the country’s political landscape.

While analysts continue to debate Myanmar’s fate, Cambodia’s most recent parliamentary elections has sparked a national crisis, as opposition forces, who have managed to massively increase their seats in the parliament, continue to accuse the state of widespread electoral fraud and manipulation.

As a result, the country has seen an unprecedented showdown between the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, on one hand, and the opposition coalition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), led by previously-exiled opposition figure Sam Rainsy. As a result, recent months have seen a major explosion in street protests and failed dialogues between both sides.

“…Intimidations and threats did occur in 2013,” Max Grömping, an elections expert currently based at University of Sydney, explains in the Quarterly. “Media bias was staggering. All mainstream TV and radio stations [were] firm in their pro-government reporting… More than one million voters were disenfranchised due to a manipulation of the voter lists.” Most strikingly, as Grömping explains, the indelible ink used by voters was easily washed off, raising concerns with multiple voting.

But is the ruling CPP in trouble? Are we set for regime-change? And, are we going to witness post-electoral revolutions ala color revolutions in the post-Soviet space?

“Regardless of whether the election results hold or large-scale violent protests erupt, it is unlikely that the CPP will easily relinquish its powers,” Grömping argues, providing a provisional answer to the question of whether an upheaval is in the cards. “It depends in large parts on whether the ruling party can rely on the security apparatus for repression, and on whether a mode of power-sharing can be found in which key figures can protect their vital interests.”

Overall, the Quarterly brings together a number of essays by leading experts and observers in the region, helping us to shed light on latest developments vis-à-vis the ongoing democratization challenges and opportunities in the Asia-Pacific.

* Richard Javad Heydarian is a lecturer in political science and development at Ateneo De Manila University, Philippines, and a consultant at the Philippine Congress and Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Manila Office. He has written for or quoted in The New York Times, Bloomberg, Huffington Post, Asia Times, The Diplomat, among other publications on geopolitics and economics in the Asia-Pacific and MENA regions.

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