Serious challenge for democracy in S-E Asia

Scenes of mass popular protests in Bangkok and Phnom Penh have alarmed those who consider the ballot box the bedrock of democracy. The protesters in both capitals are demanding that the winners of successive democratic elections leave power and, in the case of Thailand, surrender sovereignty to an unelected people's council.

Democracy is facing a serious challenge in South-east Asia. The reasons for this are simple: as popular sovereignty gains traction and ordinary voters really start to have a say in who governs, the traditional power alignments and ordering of societies are fracturing.

Faced with unpredictable outcomes at the ballot box that threaten their interests, usually conservative forces are resisting electoral change and challenging the legal basis of the democratic process. And they are doing this by harnessing popular protest and threatening violence, as is the case in Thailand. And when the establishment wins, the opposition cries foul and seeks to overturn the result, again using the power of the mob.

As a result, after a long period of struggle to establish democratic representation as the basis of government in the region, the electoral process is turning into a flashpoint for violence and conflict.

In Malaysia, elections in May brought the ruling conservative Malay-dominated Barisan Nasional coalition to the edge of defeat. The opposition alliance won a plurality of the popular vote in peninsular Malaysia but not the election overall based on the total number of parliamentary seats won. Opposition leaders urged supporters to rally against the result - which was deemed legal by the election authorities. Several weeks of mass rallies rattled the government but failed to undermine the result.

There were similar scenes in Cambodia a few months later in July, when the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party came close to defeating the Cambodian People's Party, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, South-east Asia's longest-serving elected leader. Months of protests and rallies followed as the opposition boycotted the new Parliament and demanded that Mr Hun Sen resign.

Elections in Thailand have been the source of political conflict for nearly a decade. The flashpoint was former police officer Thaksin Shinawatra's landslide election win in 2005, which made him the first premier in Thailand's six decades of democracy to enjoy a commanding parliamentary majority. Thaksin's election, with a clear majority on the back of populist policies, made the conservative elite closely associated with the palace and military nervous. The result was a military coup in 2006 that ousted him.

One explanation for this foment around election results is that democratic systems are maturing and being run more transparently. As a result, voters are better informed and make genuine choices at the ballot box. So, when political parties or leaders present appealing programmes, they inevitably result in swings from one side to another, which upset the traditional balance of forces in paternalistic societies.

Thus in Thailand, the conservative establishment - defined as a bureaucratic and military elite that associates itself with the monarchy - was happy with unstable coalition governments. This was because no elected leader could boast of a clear majority and challenge the establishment.

In Malaysia, the Malay majority is perennially concerned about the protection of its economic privileges. So, when a mainly urban-based multi-ethnic opposition emerged to challenge its monopoly on power, no effort was spared to tarnish its leadership using the power of the courts. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has been repeatedly dragged through long court cases where state prosecutors have attempted to ban him from politics on the basis of either corruption or immorality.

The democratic process appears more stable, and therefore more mature, in Indonesia and the Philippines. But this is a misleading characterisation. The apparent stability comes from the effective entrenchment of elite interests and the close hold they have on party politics. The political families that control Philippine politics may be rivals at the polls but they don't differ on core issues of preserving their wealth and privilege.

It's the same story in Indonesia, where despite the lively contestation of critical issues affecting society and the economy, both on the street and in the media, most political parties are dominated by conservative figures either with military backgrounds or close connections with corporate oligarchs. The emergence of Mr Joko Widodo, the wildly popular governor of Jakarta, as the leading candidate for the presidential election later this year in October, has introduced a populist wild card that may upset this predictable calculus for the first time in Indonesia's 15-year-long democratic transition.

Maverick political leaders who have challenged the status quo, such as Datuk Seri Anwar in Malaysia, Mr Sam Rainsy in Cambodia and Thaksin in Thailand, have generated conflict and precipitated national crises. Although Malaysia's less freewheeling political culture has allowed mass popular protests only up to a point, this may not hold back the mob in future contests.

For the business community and major investors in South-east Asia, these are paradoxically uncertain times. With the push to eradicate corruption and level the playing field, the advance of democracy promised greater transparency and certainty. But competition for power that seeks to subvert or overturn democratic outcomes has generated conflict and bred prolonged policy and bureaucratic paralysis. Even normally conservative powers like China have been forced to sound a warning. A recent article in the China Daily criticised Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen for not pushing for political reform.

It is possible that what we are seeing in Cambodia, Malaysia, and Thailand will become the norm for the next decade or so, as democratic elections start to re-arrange the furniture in the halls of power. The alternative to accommodating these changes peacefully is alarming. If conservative elites decide that the price of democratic change is inimical to their interests, this is a prescription for either dictatorship or violent revolution.

The writer is the Asia regional director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.

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