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Gregory Poling: Asia's democratic growing pains

Asia analysts have spent a considerable amount of time wringing their hands over the perceived retreat of democracy and its institutions in the region. Contested elections in Cambodia and Malaysia in 2013 fed this sense of gloom, and Thailand's military coup in May cemented the perception. But such pessimism is unwarranted. Democracy is not crumbling across Asia, as some contend. Rather, it is strengthening, albeit in fits and starts.

     The evidence is compelling. India held the world's largest election from April to May, with Narendra Modi taking the premiership after his Bharatiya Janata Party drubbed the Indian National Congress. Afghanistan held a fiercely contested vote for the presidency on June 14, in which candidate Abdullah Abdullah alleged he was robbed of victory due to fraud. But on July 12, Abdullah and his rival Ashraf Ghani signed an agreement to audit all 8 million votes cast nationwide and accept the result.

     On July 9, Indonesia successfully held the world's largest single-day presidential election. There were scattered incidents of violence and irregularities, but overall, the polls were peaceful and fair. Quick counts by the country's more reputable pollsters indicate that Jakarta Gov. Joko Widodo could well take over the leadership of Indonesia in its first transition of power from one directly elected president to another from a different political party. That is the textbook definition of democratic consolidation.

     At the same time, Widodo's rival Prabowo Subianto is also claiming victory. But the election commission will release official results around July 22, and by the end of August, all legal challenges will have been exhausted. Some analysts worry that if the final results follow early indications, Subianto will refuse to concede and might try to overturn the results by nondemocratic means. But those concerns appear premature at best. There is no indication that, even if the former general did launch such a move, his coalition partners would support him. The clear fact is, Indonesians have gladly accepted democracy as the only legitimate means of governing their country. They will not sit idly by and allow the system to be short-circuited.

Expecting the unexpected

Even cases cited by skeptics actually tell the tale of democratic consolidation in Asia -- a process that has rarely been easy and never even. The transition to a genuinely free and competitive democracy always produces losers, upsetting political hierarchies and unseating elites, many of whom refuse to go quietly into obscurity. This is only to be expected in a region that had more than its fair share of colonization, secessionist conflicts and authoritarian regimes. Every setback should not be seen as a failure of democracy.

     The Cambodia National Rescue Party surprised Prime Minister Hun Sen with its strong showing against the ruling Cambodian People's Party in the middle of last year. The opposition nearly doubled its strength in the parliament and galvanized public anger against the government. The CNRP has since refused to take up its seats in parliament, insisting that fraud cost it the victory it deserved. It is clear that irregularities were widespread before and during the vote, the most egregious regarding false names on the voter roll.

     Despite this setback, there is a silver lining in Cambodia. The surprising strength of opposition demonstrations forced the ruling party into negotiations, and the added strength of the labor rights movement led to the unthinkable: real concessions from Hun Sen. The prime minister has recently agreed to electoral reforms, including a change to a more independent election commission and moving up the date of the next election to February 2018. Now it is up to opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha to decide whether to accept these small victories and end their boycott of parliament in order to fight another day.

     In Malaysia, last May's general elections proved to be a doubled-edged sword. Rampant gerrymandering allowed the ruling coalition, led by the United Malays National Organization, to retain power, but its loss of the popular vote for the first time highlighted that its continued dominance is no longer a foregone conclusion. The near loss deepened the divisions within UMNO between hardliners and reformers. It also underscored just how much the ruling coalition has lost legitimacy among Chinese Malaysians and has come to rely almost exclusively on rural ethnic Malays.

     If UMNO continues to veer toward ethnic and religious chauvinism to consolidate support among its base, then it could find itself out of power after the next election. But it could also poison the civic well so much that hardened ethnic divisions threaten the democratic system. That said, the transition to a genuine competitive democracy in Malaysia was never going to be easy. It is premature to see events since the 2013 elections as evidence of a long-term democratic retreat.

New norms

The real story of political evolution in Asia in recent years therefore has not been one of democratic retreat. It has been one of expanding democratic norms and more responsive governance.

     In a striking example, Myanmar, with or without the chance for an Aung San Suu Kyi presidency, is on track to hold peaceful and hopefully free elections in 2015 that have the potential to leave the country more democratic than it has been in at least half a century. In Singapore, the ruling People's Action Party has been forced since the 2012 elections to respond to popular opinion in ways previously unthinkable. In Hong Kong and Macau this month, mass protests and informal referendums demanding direct elections underscore just how deeply Asian citizens have come to see democracy as the most legitimate form of governance.

     Taken together, the political currents in Asia appear to contradict the skeptics' warnings of democracy in retreat. Instead, they show the expected growing pains of democratic transition and consolidation. And they indicate that Thailand's military coup was not a bellwether, but rather an aberration in a region moving toward greater democracy.

Gregory Poling is a fellow with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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