Search Wednesday April 21, 2004

Philip Bowring: Some messy votes, but better than none
Asian elections
By Philip Bowring (IHT)
Friday, April 2, 2004

HONG KONG: Authoritarian regimes in Asia, headed by China, are enthused by the apparent failures of what they claim to be a foreign import: one-man-one-vote democracy. Do they have a point at this early juncture in a year which sees elections almost everywhere?

Taiwan is deadlocked over the result, the loser being unwilling to admit defeat. South Korea's president is in limbo after impeachment by the National Assembly. Indonesia faces six months of electioneering, costing much money and changing little. The Philippines again demonstrate that democratic politics is often little more than showbiz. Malaysia had an orderly election, but hardly a fair one. The same party has been in power for 50 years. Sri Lanka's democratic system may have sunk chances of a peace deal with the Tamil Tigers.

Is democracy itself at fault? Are the democratic institutions too immature? Are the systems inappropriate? Are the electorates too poor or uneducated to make reasoned decisions?

One theme running through most of these cases is the division of power between a directly elected president and separately elected legislatures. In Taiwan, opposition control of the legislature is one part of the impasse of President Chen Shui-bian's re-election. In Korea, the president has been impeached on frivolous grounds by opposition lawmakers trying to score points in the run-up to legislative elections. The April 2 election in Sri Lanka is a result of the power struggle between a directly elected president and a prime minister appointed by Parliament. The Philippines' two-chamber legislature has long been a barrier to effective governance. In Indonesia, the separation of the presidential and legislative elections makes for a drawn-out process and feverish horse-trading.

But these are not fatal flaws. They can be addressed. Democratic systems can and do change in ways that produce more stable governments.

Another problem common to several countries is the weakness of political parties, which results in personality-driven politics. This is pronounced in Korea, Thailand and Indonesia and goes to extremes in the Philippines, where television personalities top the polls and party loyalties are nonexistent.

This is discouraging for those hoping elections will bring forth leaders, not actors. But at least Philippine politics are no longer dominated by the landlord class.

Nor are Asian elections all about personalities. Parties in Taiwan and Malaysia are strong and reflect genuine ideological differences. Parties are strong too in India and Sri Lanka and there is a veneer of ideology on Indonesian ones. Even Korean parties have a regional dimension as well as a left-right divide.

Ideological differences may seem divisive. But in practice, democratic politics force compromise. Taiwan may appear to be deeply divided, but policy differences between the two camps are actually quite small. Ideology is kept in check by the need to occupy the electoral middle ground. Democracy must also grapple with long-hidden problems, such as separatism, and the huge debts left by the likes of Suharto and Ferdinand Marcos. It has also proved more effective than authoritarianism in keeping fundamentalism at bay in Pakistan, Indonesia, India and Malaysia, and wrestling with it in Iran.

The inadequacies of governments are more the result of weak bureaucracies and corrupt judiciaries than of poorly functioning democracies.

Democracy is indeed a flawed system in Asia, as elsewhere. But look around Asia at the alternatives on offer. Burma? Vietnam? North Korea? Look even at Hong Kong, where entrenched business interests resist democracy to protect their own oligopolies.

Finally, look at China. Whatever its political future, the party which brought China the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen is scarcely in a position to deliver lectures on governance. Recent economic achievements are the result of a loosening of party control. Self-perpetuating party rule is a major factor in gross misallocation of resources and an income maldistribution which makes the Philippines look like a peoples' republic.

The nexus between political and economic power has created instant multimillionaires and, as in Hong Kong, networks of nepotism. President Vladimir Putin is trying to keep the oligarchs out of power. China is inviting them in. The system works, but for how long?

Democracy is messy, costly and unfair. But at whatever level, it involves the people in their own government, competent or not. The evidence in Asia is, on balance, positive.