Why has the end of authoritarianism in Asia not always resulted in a clear transition to Democracy?

The political configurations of constituent nations in the Asian continent have seen many significant changes over the last fifty years.  The conclusion of the Second World War served as the precipitant event in transforming the erstwhile colonies in Asia into independent, sovereign nations.  But, not all transformations have led to positive consequences.  It would be simplistic to not look beyond official labels attached to governments in these nations.  For example, classifying an Asian nation as a democracy or a dictatorship without taking into account the complex and often subtle political realities can lead to distorted perceptions.  A nuanced approach is required to understand the real social, economic and demographic parameters that define a civil society and evaluate political transitions in Asia in this context.  Many analysts have pointed out that the salient features of a vibrant democracy are quite different from superficial symbols of a democratic setup as seen in many countries across Asia.  For example, in countries such as Indonesia, Philippines, etc, which were colonies of European imperial powers until half a century back, the effects of the protracted period of imperialism are still evident in the way their institutions function.  These post-colonial societies are at crossroads of history and have to overcome challenges in the realm of economics and politics if they are to emerge as competent players in the new world order.

Another important aspect of post-independent history of this region is the blatant disregard for legislative power as well as the judiciary.  As a result, several leaders have misappropriated their executive powers to impose emergency rule over the citizens and civil institutions, making the institution of democracy a total farce.  While several justifications have been forwarded for the application of emergency powers, none has been accepted as valid by neutral observers of the international community.  This infringement on legal and parliamentary authority had happened in almost all nations of the South East Asian bloc, including Indonesia and Philippines, which is ironical considering the fact that these two nations were supposed to be the more advanced in the region.  The invoking of emergency powers by President Fidel Ramos in Philippines remains a classic case of abuse of power (Razack, 2006).

A disturbing trend witnessed in East Asian democracies is the smooth transformation of the old authoritarian elite into top leadership of political parties.  This defeats the very purpose of intended progressive changes, as those individuals accustomed to exercising autocratic rule assume roles in democratic institutions.  Author Mervyn Bendle cites the example of the KMT in Thailand, the leaders of which held undisputed power in the country’s days of dictatorship as well as in the new period of democracy.  While political organization might have changed for the better, the regime has effectively been the same.  The successful entry of authoritarian ruling class into democratic institutions is achieved, as in Thailand and Philippines, through patronage and intimidation of uninformed, illiterate and underprivileged masses.  This is clearly evident from the re-emergence of autocrats from the Marcos era in the Philippines.  So, political transitions in Asia need to be seen in their overall impact on civil society, as opposed to basing the assessment on token and illusory indicators of progress and prosperity (Bendle, 2005).

A deeper analysis of the Asian polity reveals several nexuses between political parties and business corporations.  In almost all countries of the region, the influential business class interferes in democratic processes, thereby undermining the will of the electorate.  Razack terms this phenomenon as “money politics”, where political maneuvers that favour business interests can be bought with money.  The disconnection between the military and electoral democracy is another major concern for people of the region.  The South East Asian region had seen its share of military coups, which subvert the power of the citizens in determining political outcomes. The central financial institutions of the region wield too much power in shaping economic policies.  Moreover, the central banks of Thailand and Korea basically act as agents of the IMF.  The policy framework within which they work ensures that the international economic order is maintained, even at the cost of depriving its own citizens’ basic necessities of living (Razack, 2006).  These socio-political and economic conditions have meant that the end of authoritarianism in Asian countries have not always led to functioning democracies.

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