Is democracy in Asia in a state of perpetual crisis?
For a region that is home to more than half of the world’s population, the state of democracy in the Asia seems to be dire. According to Freedom House’s 2014 report on the Asia Pacific, only 39% of the region is considered to be “free” and have full-functioning liberal democracies.
Political developments this year seem to confirm Freedom House’s diagnosis of the region’s poor democratic health: In January, non-elections took place in Bangladesh; in March, the Sunflower movement in Taiwan bloomed for a moment; in May, Thailand experienced its 19th coup since 1932; and since late September, Hong Kong has been standing in solidarity to challenge China’s future political plans for the country.
In the eyes of the West and many democracy advocacy agencies, the basic elements of what constitutes a democracy are: free and fair elections, a pluralist society with civil liberties, a functioning government, high political participation and high degrees of speech and press freedom. For the majority of countries in Asia, most of these elements do not exist to a large degree, if at all.
In the 2013 edition of the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, South Korea was the only Asian country to be ranked amongst the top twenty “full” democracies of the world, while every other political system in the region fell into the categories of “flawed democracies,” “hybrid regimes” or “authoritarian regimes.”
The seemingly disproportionate spread of liberal democracy as a concept of governance in Asia can be explained by how liberal democracy is simply not a template that political parties in Asia should follow. Many Asian governments are not liberal democracies, and do not claim – or desire – to be. Since the 1990s, academics have theorized that good economic growth, Asian values and cultural norms and the desire for stability are factors that make “Asian-style democracy” adapt Western-style democratic features into Asian frameworks.
Why is the Topic of Democracy in Asia Relevant?
But things are changing at the hands of the people who voice opinions in snapshots or 140 characters. “Popular democracy” is becoming a catch phrase amongst increasingly educated and tech-savvy Asians who, like participants in the Arab Uprisings, have been using social media to promote greater freedom of speech, liberalism and popular politics. Governments across the region are taking note of “people power” to the effect that the limited space for political expression in countries like Singapore, or race-based politics in Malaysia, will be tested in future elections.
People want their governments to be accountable and transparent, deal with growing income inequalities, corruption, collusion and nepotism, provide greater access to education, make improvements in welfare, provide greater minority rights and greater freedom of speech.
Asia has also experienced some successful and warmly-received political developments over the last few months: India’s new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has ambitious plans to change India’s social and political landscape, and Indonesia’s newly-elected President, Joko Widodo, is set to make Indonesia an unlikely model of democracy. Myanmar has been undergoing the process of democratization since 2008 and has reached out to the rest of the world, most recently hosting the 2013 ASEAN Games.
Various independent watchdogs’ diagnoses of Asia’s liberal democratic health are not likely to be more positive when the next round of democratic indexes are published, as these tend to focus too much on how countries need to follow model institutional reforms and certain Western-style metrics of liberal democracy.
Most Asian voters are aware that democracy is not merely a day-long show of balloting put up by incumbents. What Asians want from their “flawed,” “hybrid” or “authoritarian” governments is no different from what any citizen in any other political system wants: People want their governments to be accountable and transparent, deal with growing income inequalities, corruption, collusion and nepotism, provide greater access to education, make improvements in welfare, provide greater minority rights and greater freedom of speech.
If the Communist Party in China or the military governments in Myanmar and Thailand cannot deliver these goods, the waves of liberalism that have arrived on Asia’s shores — as shown by the solidarity and strength of civil society in Thailand and Hong Kong over the past year — might ebb and flow with increasing intensity, and persuade Asian politicians to re-think how they can be accountable to the people.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.