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Slowly but Steadily, Governance Adapts in Post-Crisis Asia

By Philip Bowring - International Herald Tribune

HONG KONG - Nearly three years after the Asian crisis broke, it is now possible to get a broad picture of its political consequences. The story is not yet complete, but in general there has been much less fallout than most people expected. What fallout there has been is as much a result of generational change as of fundamental rethinking of political structures.

It is also clear that presidential systems enable quicker changes than parliamentary ones, but also underline the institutional weaknesses that were one of the causes of the crisis.

Compare, for example Taiwan, which suffered little from the crisis but has since elected an opposition party leader as president, with Malaysia, where Mahathir bin Mohamad remains well dug in despite the jailing of his former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, and the ero-sion of Malay support for the United Malays National Organization, UMNO.

Despite the unpopularity of the Kuomintang after 50 years in power, it is hard to imagine that Chen Shui-bian could have become the country's leader in a parliamentary system, given the weight of the Kuomintang and a buoyant economy. The defection to opposition of the heavyweight James Soong would have been no more fatal to the Kuomintang than the departure of the Mr. Anwar's supporters has been to UMNO.

But with a presidential system the Kuomintang split (which is over personalities more than policies) handed the election to Mr. Chen. Generational factors were also at work, but they were secondary.

Some Malaysian commentators fear or hope that an UMNO which remains under Mr. Mahathir will suffer the fate of the Kuomintang. But whether or not Mr. Mahathir again succeeds in fighting off leadership challenges, the central national political battle remains between UMNO and the disparate opposition coalition led by Parti Islam. If Malaysia had a Taiwan-style presidential system, Mr. Mahathir would probably be gone by now.

As a result, Malaysia has yet to make a generational transition or reform a system in which power is excessively centralized, institutional checks and balances have been eroded and the connection between business and politics is too close.

However, there is no doubting the fundamental political stability of Malaysia. The means of change do exist, and UMNO will eventually deliver the leadership changes needed to keep voters on its side.

In South Korea on the other hand, a presidential system and very strong executive authority have enabled Kim Dae Jung to push through changes unthinkable before the crisis, especially treatment of chaebol and acceptance of foreign investment. However, Mr. Kim now stands accused of the same dictatorial ways as his predecessors. South Korean political parties remain based more on personalities and regional loyalties than on ideas or permanent structures.

Debate persists on whether to switch to a parliamentary system like Japan's, which can result in revolving door leadership but has produced a high level of stability and led to little personal abuse of power.

South Korean moves toward a parliamentary system, or even one with a better balance between legislative and executive powers, have been blocked by President Kim. The crisis has thus brought real change to the economic structure but not to the political one.

Thailand's fluid parliamentary system delivered a change in leadership just when it was needed in late 1997 and has been robust enough to come through three harrowing years without being seriously questioned. But the Thai mix of liberal democracy, money politics and shifting party allegiances has not basically changed.

Diffusion of power and lack of a strong executive to address cronyism have prevented Thailand from being as decisive as South Korea in dealing with banking and corporate debts.

Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai may or may not survive in office after elections later this year. However, the quality of political life is continuing to improve gradually, as evidenced by the newly elected Senate and the recent resignation of the deputy prime minister, and political fixer, Sanan Kajornprasart after corruption allegations.

In the Philippines there are more signs of decay than of improvement in political quality since Joseph Estrada became president. The Asian crisis has had no discernible bearing on these developments. Opponents of democracy are quick to point to the Philippines, although its problems lie more in the structure of its constitution and the weakness of its institutions than in democracy per se.

At the other end of the spectrum of regional order remains Singapore. It will take more than a year of recession to make significant changes in a political setup which has few parallels. But the government has responded to generational change, and the impact of the Internet, by showing a less restrictive attitude on social issues and being more willing to recognize the economic benefits of individualism.

Looking around the region, it is only in Indonesia that the Asian crisis has led to profound political change, whose dimensions are as yet uncertain. Even there, change has been much less traumatic than seemed likely in March 1998 when President Suharto quit in the face of multiple conflicts and a collapsing currency. Given how ill prepared the country was for political change of any sort, let alone in the midst of economic crisis, Indonesia has thus far exceeded expectations.

Economic recovery is still partial in some countries, and a legacy of debt will persist for years. But in the region as a whole, political systems have shown themselves to be both resilient and capable of change.