Can the 'fragile five' ride the next wave?

Can the 'fragile five' ride the next wave?
Protesters with their “Jakarta to Solo ticket” banner. They are unhappy over Jakarta governor Joko Widodo’s decision to run for the Indonesian presidency.

A surge of protests in Turkey and Brazil in 2013 provided a vivid reminder that emerging-market countries in every region of the world now face serious challenges, and not all of them will fully emerge to become secure and prosperous middle-class nations.

Expanding and more demanding middle classes, slower economic growth, and public impatience with ruling parties in power for more than a decade have added to the list of headaches for governments in Turkey, Brazil, India, Indonesia, and South Africa. Each of these countries suffered significant pressure on its currency last year, earning them the label "fragile five".

There was one bright spot. In Mexico, voters elected Mr Enrique Pena Nieto, a reformer with a mandate. Delays to Mexico's reform process continue, but later this year, we will see long-awaited breakthroughs that restructure the country's politics, open its oligarch-dominated economy, and modernise its energy sector. In Mexico, an election made all the difference.

Can last year's "fragile five" produce a similarly positive result? In fact, governments in South Africa, India, Indonesia, Turkey and Brazil all face voters this year, creating the promise that long-delayed reforms necessary to boost their economies and help these countries reach the next delicate stage of development, will move forward. Unfortunately, sometimes elections don't bring the change that voters demand and outsiders expect. Some are poised to make more progress than others, but a look at these five polls demonstrates just how limited the current prospects for change really are.

In South Africa, the voters have already spoken. Despite chronic unemployment and considerable public anger over official corruption and poor services, the African National Congress has won another victory. The Democratic Alliance, South Africa's main opposition party, has some way to go before it is competitive enough to bring broader change to South African politics.

But the splintering of the country's trade union movement diminishes its capacity to protect its members by blocking ANC efforts to bring more of the unemployed into the workforce, a promise ANC officials know they must keep if they are to win future elections. That's some cause for hope, at least at the margins, that South Africa's army of unemployed can look towards brighter days ahead.

In India, as final tallies are recorded, we will see that voters have cast out the Congress Party in favour of the more business- friendly Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Yet, despite a surge in market optimism that new leaders will bring wholesale change, the BJP will likely face the same intense political polarisation that limited the former government in its drive towards any sort of change that demands parliamentary approval. We can expect greater openness to trade and foreign investment in the years to come, but the labour reform necessary to fully jump-start economic growth will not survive India's chaotic legislative process for the foreseeable future.

In Indonesia, popular Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo of the Indonesian Democratic Party - Struggle (PDI-P) will likely become the country's next president in July, raising hopes for sweeping change in Indonesia's politics.

But former president Megawati Sukarnoputri will continue to control the party and its parliamentary votes, and she has good reason to resist pressure for reforms that inflict short-term economic pain for long-term gain: she hopes to pass power to her children in the years to come.

To preserve the political popularity of her party and her family, she will resist efforts to impose controversial, but necessary, changes. In Turkey, the ruling party's strong showing in local elections in March and the recent retirement announcement from President Abdullah Gul suggest that combative Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will become the country's first popularly elected president in August.

With Mr Gul, his primary potential rival within the ruling Justice and Development Party, on the sidelines, Mr Erdogan will then look for a loyalist to support as prime minister in next year's general election. Turkish voters can therefore expect an intensification of the Erdogan-led infighting and purges that have sidelined overdue structural economic reform and polarised the country.

In Brazil, market rallies following recent poor poll results suggest that much of Brazil's business community is hoping for, if not betting on, a loss for President Dilma Rousseff. But in the end, she will win re-election in October, with lots of help from former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Here reform prospects may begin to improve. Though electricity rationing next year could weigh on growth, Mr Lula's influence and Ms Rousseff's determination to avoid another credit downgrade for Brazil will lead to a more market-friendly policy approach.

The stunning growth in these countries that captured the world's imagination a decade ago was not an illusion. Some of them will move forward faster than others. But it will take longer than a single election cycle for the next wave of progress.

This article was published on May 14 in The Straits Times.

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