KONGIt has been three years since a wave of political change hit East
Asia after the region's economic crisis. What, if any, common lessons about
democracy, good government and constitutional development have been learned
since Indonesia's President Suharto was peacefully overthrown, South Korea
elected the veteran oppositionist Kim Dae Jung as president, Thailand acquired a
new constitution and government, and the arrest of Anwar Ibrahim sent Malaysian
politics into uncharted territory?
The most difficult questions revolve
around separation of powers (executive, legislative, judicial) and
decentralization of authority in democratic systems. Are they a benefit or a
recipe for anarchy?
In theory, separation of powers should
mean reducing the prospect of abuse of power, and decentralization should
improve accountability and curb centrifugal tendencies by accommodating regional
interests. Reality is different.
In Indonesia, the president has immense
power in theory, but in practice his executive authority has been undermined by
pro-Suharto elements within the military and the bureaucracy. That is a product
of circumstance. However, separation of powers could be blamed for President
Abdurrahman Wahid's difficulty in pushing badly needed legislation through a
fragmented legislature, and for his inability to reform the judiciary and
Decentralization has just begun, but
Indonesia is ill-prepared. It has a mixed record in other large countries such
as Brazil and India. Indonesians wonder why Western countries plead the need for
local control of natural resources when they do not practice it at home.
Without decentralization, Indonesia may
be in danger either of falling apart or of being returned to the Suharto system
of authoritarian control. But decentralization may make local corruption worse,
increase environmental damage and exacerbate communal tensions.
Thailand has few ethnic and religious or
regional problems. Its parties are as fragmented as Indonesia's but the
coalition building necessary in a multiparty parliamentary system has proved
reasonably effective. The weakness of the executive is partly offset by a
moderately competent bureaucracy. But Thailand has yet to show that either
democracy or bureaucracy has reasserted itself over business interests keen to
see their debts acquired by the state.
In Malaysia the parliamentary system has
been scant brake on the autocratic instincts of Mahathir bin Mohamad and on the
cronyism embedded in a political structure so long dominated by his party.
Malayia's federal system, with the opposition in power in some states, has
helped keep pluralism alive, even though the price in terms of illiberal state
laws and rape of the forests has been high.
Malaysia's courts and civil servants
still have a better reputation than most in Southeast Asia. They would respond
to a change of leadership.
South Korea has shown how a strong,
elected executive presidency backed by a strong (Japanese-model) bureaucracy can
make change happen. Separation of powers has not been a major hindrance to
President Kim, although his party has never had a majority in the legislature.
However, it is possible that in future
there will be conflict in Seoul between the directly elected president and the
legislature, as now exists in Taiwan and the Philippines, highlighted by the
impeachment processes. In all three countries, because there is no runoff
between the top two candidates presidents have been elected on minority votes,
which weakens their moral authority.
South Korea has been toying with moving
to a parliamentary system to reduce the tendency of executive presidents to
abuse power. The Philippines considered this, too, after Ferdinand Marcos. But
there seems little public pressure for it. Most citizens find it easier to
identify with personalities, not parties. Other than the monarchies (Japan,
Thailand, Malaysia) the only country in East Asia with a nonexecutive head of
state is ex-British Singapore.
The U.S.-style systems in the Philippines
and South Korea have roots in local political culture. In the U.S. tradition,
popular participation in government at the lowest levels was the norm,
government authority was suspect and the legal system enjoyed immense prestige.
Asian antecedents are feudalism, colonialism and authoritarian Confucian
It is not surprising that Asia is finding
it hard to produce elected governments that are effective, representative of
often racially divided societies and moderated by legal systems which are
respected. But overall there is progress.