Prospects of Democracy in Asia

Posted by Dr Afzal Mirza under Features on 17 January 2001

The enormous economic growth of Asian tigers (Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Korea, Taiwan etc.) in nineties termed as miracle left the Western world gasping at the huge growth potential of these countries. But suddenly in 1997 the myth exploded with a bang called the" crash of 1997". The countries were suddenly engulfed by an economic turmoil. The analysts all over the world delved into the economic causes of the problem ignoring the political dimensions. The book "The Political Dimensions of the Asian Crisis" is a collection of papers read at the annual congress of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats(CALD) held in Bangkok from 16 to 18 October 1998. [The Political Dimensions of the Asian Crisis edited by Uwe Johannnan, Jurgen Rudolph and James Gomez, Publisher: Friedrich Naumann Foundation, Singapore, Pages: 267 Price: S$29.00 is now available in Singapore and Malaysian Book Stores](The book can be also ordered online at Select Books. See link on left of this page)

The conference "The Asian Crisis-Political Responses to the Problem" was participated by 120 politicians, journalists and academics from 12 Asian countries. Other conferences held on the Asian Crisis had all discussed the financial and economic aspects of the crisis but the distinction of this conference was that they critically analysed the political background and consequences of the "Asian meltdown". They tried to determine the relationship between democracy and development and to find out which should come first.

In the immediate post-colonial period it was widely believed that political development had to be compromised for sake of economic development. As a result one finds the emergence of authoritarian regimes in Asian countries which exercised central authority instead of devolving power. Amazing growth rates legitimised the central state authority for economic development. In the eighties it was observed that the assumption that economic prosperity would fuel the process of democratisation did not materialise. The impasse between democratic theory and practice in the region was ascribed as reason for lack of political development. According to the editors in nineties the argument that centralised state authority was needed for strong economic performance was a given an ethno-cultural twist saying that "Asian values" have contributed to the region's good economic performance and hence required preservation. However, the" crash of 1997" has raised the issue of linking the economic development again with the political development.. The East Asian countries fast ascent to the peak of prosperity was termed as a miracle and the countries were termed as Asian tigers. The analysis of the economic causes of this crash were already discussed in various world forums and the participants of the present conference thought it necessary to study the issue from the political angle and to debate the issue whether democracy was crucial for the region's recovery. What started as the Asian currency turmoil in July 1997 became a very complex phenomenon with multiple financial, economic, social and political facets. The crisis has exposed deep structural deficiencies in the political and socio-economic systems of the region.

The participants of the conference felt that in the countries of this region a very simplistic view of democracy is taken that is confining themselves to the electoral part of democracy and ignoring other aspects. They agree with Larry Diamond whose eleven point conceptualisation of democracy appears to provide answers to most of the political issues faced by the countries of the region as well as the world. The points are summarised here for the benefits of readers:

(1) Electoral outcomes are uncertain, opposition vote is significant and no group that adheres to constitutional principles is denied the right to form a party and contest elections.

(2) The military and other democratically unaccountable actors should be subordinate to the authority of elected civilian officials.

(3) Citizens have multiple channels for expression and representation such as diverse independent associations and movements which they have the freedom to form and join.

(4) Individuals have substantial freedom of belief, opinion, discussion, speech, publication, assembly, demonstration and petition.

(5) There are alternative sources of information (including independent media to which citizens have politically unfettered access).

(6) Executive power is constrained by the autonomy of the government institutions such as an independent judiciary , parliament and other mechanisms of horizontal accountablity.

(7) Civil liberties are effectively protected by an independent non-discriminatory judiciary whose decisons are respected and enforced by other centres of power.

(8) Citizens are politically equal under the law.

(9) Minority groups are not oppressed.

(10) The rule of law protects citizens from human right abuses.

(11) The constitution is supreme.

The conference observed that the crisis was in a way outcome of lack of good governance in these countries. They were of the opinion that good governance needs to separate political and business interests. And corruption needs to be combated on all levels. The political reforms therefore should be focused on these areas:

(1) electoral systems

(2) a separation of powers and independence of judiciary

(3) protection of civil and human rights

(4) support of an effective civil society

(5) free media

(6) civil military relations

All these points in one way or other are related to the Diamond's definition of liberal democracy and needed further research regarding their links to economic problems encountered by Asian countries.

The book has been divided into six parts. The part I discusses "The political causes of Asian crisis". In Part II "Framing the Political Dimension of the Asian Crisis" has been dealt with believing that ": Asia is Down but not Out". The Part III deals with "The Underpinning s of the Asian Crisis" with particular reference to South Korean experience. In Part IV "Political and Democratic Reforms" in Thailand, Taiwan, Korea and Indonesia have been studies in detail. The Part V considers the "Global and Regional Implications of the Asian Crisis" and Part VI gives "A Political Evaluation of the Asian Crisis" and the "Prospects of Democracy". All these parts are based on the deliberations of various sections of the conference and besides papers a summary of the discussion has also been included at the end of each Part.

The contents of the book are relevant to us in as much as we are now treading a path that has already been adopted by these countries. In Pakistan we are debating the relationship between democracy and development and a section of public opinion even considers democracy as irrelevant to our ethos. When the Asian Tigers embarked on the path of development they considered democracy not very relevant. The verdict of this book is that far from posing a hurdle to economic development, democratisation and economic progress can go hand in hand. However keeping in mind the Diamond model of democracy , work should be done to develop a model of democracy relevant to the culture and ethos of our own society. After reading the book and all that emphasis on democracy one wonders as if all this material had been prepared with China in mind.

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