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The recent mass protests in Hong Kong have highlighted China's strengthening grip, while also bringing hope to people struggling for freedom elsewhere. (© Nikkei montage/Source photos by Getty Images and Reuters)
Asia Insight

Asia's fragile democracies struggle to tame illiberal forces

Vibrant elections across region mask a lack of checks and balances

ANDREW SHARP, Nikkei Asian Review deputy politics & economy news editor | Southeast Asia

TOKYO/JAKARTA -- On a sweltering Saturday, tens of thousands of people dressed in red and white lined the streets of the Indonesian capital. Cheering, waving, smiling, they were heading to the national stadium for President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo's final rally before the April 17 election.

Those lucky enough to get into the arena packed with more than 100,000 supporters were treated to an afternoon of music from contemporary pop stars and grizzled rockers, as well as some religious chanting. With people fainting in the heat, Widodo came out to a rapturous reception.

"I want to state that this country, Indonesia, will not fall apart," the president told the crowd. "We're currently on the right track."

Since the dictator Suharto was toppled in 1998, elections in Indonesia have come to be billed as "Pesta Demokrasi," or "Festival Democracy." Election day is a national holiday, and turnout for the April poll was more than 80%.

While Jokowi won relatively comfortably, the release of the official results in May led to violent clashes between protesters and police that left nine people dead. Opposition leader Prabowo Subianto is now challenging the result in court, and some of his supporters have been arrested over allegations of spreading disinformation -- claims that they deny.

This shows the fragile nature of democracy in a country where many remember life under a dictator. It is a similar picture across Asia, where major elections have been held this year in Thailand, the Philippines and India, but where the needle in the ongoing battle between liberal and illiberal forces is swinging toward authoritarianism.

The recent mass protests in Hong Kong, too, have highlighted China's strengthening grip while also bringing hope to people struggling for freedom elsewhere. Local elections in the territory in November, as well as major polls in Taiwan, South Korea, Myanmar and Singapore in 2020, will be further guides to which direction the needle is moving.

Indonesian President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo stirs up the crowd during a campaign rally at Jakarta's national stadium on April 13. Since Suharto was toppled in 1998, elections have come to be billed as "Pesta Demokrasi," or "Festival Democracy." (Photo by Kosaku Mimura)

Each country has its own degrees of transparency, participation and fairness. Checks and balances on power also vary greatly. But Josh Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that, broadly, the state of democracy in Asia is not great.

"There is fairly robust electoral democracy in some countries, but in a number of countries it has regressed a lot over the past 15 or so years," said Kurlantzick, who contributed to Freedom House's Freedom in the World 2019 report. "A lot of countries are having very vibrant elections, but the processes are not always fair, and the institutions of democracy have regressed substantially."

The Economist Intelligence Unit gave Asian democracies an average total score of 5.67 out of 10 in its Democracy Index 2018 report. The region lags North America (8.56), Western Europe (8.35) and Latin America (6.24). Excluding Australia and New Zealand, Asia had no country ranked as a "full democracy," with Japan and South Korea just under the threshold. The overall score was dragged down by totalitarian regimes such as North Korea, China and Vietnam.

Duncan Innes-Ker, Asia regional director at the EIU, said that Asia had made positive strides in advancing democracy in recent decades, but that the past few years have brought more backsliding than progress.

"All four elections this year were carried out relatively smoothly, and people were given their voice in all of these countries," he said.

"But at the same time we see a number of worrying elements building underneath this generally positive story," he added. "Elections are not just about voting, you need to have a credible opposition, you need checks and balances on governments when they are in power, you need recognition and protection of minorities -- a lot of these elements are very questionable in a lot of countries in Asia."

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks in West Bengal on May 16. Observers said his victory reflected the will of the people, but expressed concern about populism undermining democracy. (Photo by Kosaku Mimura)

India, the world's biggest democracy, is one place that worries observers.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's hand was strengthened after his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party won by a landslide in a bitterly fought general election held over seven phases in April and May.

Innes-Ker at the EIU said the will of the people was clearly reflected in the outcome. Yet, he expressed concern about populist policies undermining the roots of democracy.

"You need protection for the rights of minorities and you need a willingness to accept those protections on behalf of the majority, otherwise democracy doesn't really work," he said. "Those protections are being weakened under the BJP."

While there were few signs of electoral malpractice, there were some accounts of candidates trying to buy votes. The race in the seat of Vellore in the southern state of Tamil Nadu was postponed after a huge amount of cash -- reportedly from a regional party candidate -- was seized before voting. The same party swept the polls in other constituencies in the state.

"Maybe it looks good from the outside, but political parties are not at all democratic on the inside," said Jaskirat Singh, trustee at the New Delhi-based Association for Democratic Reforms. "There should be elections for president and other positions in the parties. Unless there is democracy in the parties [that run the country], how do you expect the country to be democratic?"

Thailand is perhaps the poster child for the regional drift toward illiberalism.

Prayuth Chan-ocha was officially made prime minister for a second term on June 11, two and a half months after the March general election. His victory was helped by a new constitution drafted by the junta that allowed the military government to handpick the 250 members of the Senate.

Another example that shows the backward drift in Thailand is the election commission's sudden ruling after the vote that it would reward 11 small parties a seat each -- rather like a soccer referee awarding a goal after the game had ended. These parties bolstered the pro-junta coalition even though none met the minimum vote threshold.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University, said Thailand has a "plastic democracy."

"On the outside they seem to want to appear like they hold some sort of democratic characteristics to give themselves some legitimacy, but when you look into it there is nothing democratic about it," said Chachavalpongpun, a Thai national living in exile in Japan. "The junta are trying to be authoritarian within a democratic process."

Soldiers line up to vote in Thailand's election on March 24. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha's win was helped by a junta-drafted constitution that allowed the military to pick the 250 Senate members.   © Reuters

In the Philippines' midterms in May, candidates backed by President Rodrigo Duterte swept the board. This was a resounding vote of confidence in his policies that include a bloody drug war, an infrastructure surge and a diplomatic pivot to China.

Richard Heydarian, a Manila-based academic, said Duterte is winning by default. "My worry is not the election process, more it's the overall zeitgeist beyond the ballot box."

"There is no champion of liberal democracy in the Philippines, no opposition leader with the charisma to match the president and rally," said the author of "The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy." "The majority of Filipinos are actually quite comfortable with a leader who doesn't bother with institutional checks and balances, liberties and human rights."

The region does have some bright spots, albeit with scope for concern.

"In terms of electoral democracy, Indonesia has moved forward. It has managed to calm down the violence in post-Suharto Indonesia," said Andreas Harsono, a Jakarta-based researcher for Human Rights Watch and author of "Race, Islam and Power: Ethnic and Religious Violence in Post-Suharto Indonesia."

"The challenge for President Jokowi is to improve civil liberties, undo damaging discriminatory regulations, and at the same time maintain the electoral democracy," he said. "If the government does not want to move forward, we will still have electoral democracy, but with declining civil liberties, the end result will be grim."

In a positive sign, Freedom House said in its annual report that the dramatic political shift in Malaysia after Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's surprise return to power last year "raised hopes for democratic reform."

Like in the West, there appears to be growing frustration with political leaders and democracies. Yet the challenges are different in Asia.

"In the U.S. and Europe there is a feeling among the public that the governments they are electing are not really doing anything," said EIU's Innes-Ker. "Asia is enjoying relatively fast economic growth at the moment, and that leads to more supportive general public attitudes. The challenge comes in places [such as South Korea, Japan and Taiwan] where governments are starting to find it more difficult to drive growth."

Also, the West's status as a democratic role model is fading.

"It is problematic that the world's most powerful democracy is flailing at the same time," said Kurlantzick at the Council on Foreign Relations. "It's like advertising your car... but the car is breaking down."

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen is using the Hong Kong protests to highlight why the democratic island should keep its distance from Beijing.   © Reuters

At the same time, he added, the highly illiberal regime in China makes it even tougher for democracy to win out in Asia.

"Chinese money has been a boon for a lot of these autocratic governments in Asia that are trying to resist pressure from the West," Innes-Ker said. "China's able to take the place of donors pushing for more democratic behavior."

But the recent protests in Hong Kong offer inspiration for champions of democracy across the world, even if the demonstrators do wind up losing out to the might of the Chinese Communist Party.

Michael Montesano, a visiting senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said that in Asia there is a long and recurrent struggle between liberal and illiberal forces.

"The authoritarian impulses that are in the ascendant today in Thailand, Indonesia and even the Philippines have deep roots -- not in culture but rather in the politics of the 20th century. Neither those forces or their appeal have suddenly appeared from nowhere," Montesano told Nikkei. The same, he said, applies to liberal or democratic forces.

"We should not lose sight of the fact that this is a contest," Montesano said, "in which neither side can ever be considered down and out."

Nikkei staff writers Kiran Sharma in New Delhi and Shotaro Tani in Jakarta contributed to this report.

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