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 manoeuvres 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).
Considering that China is predicted to be the next global superpower and at present the fastest growing economy, it requires a more detailed analysis. For the prospects and fortunes of China and its people will have ripple effects on other nations in the Asian continent. To gain a historical perspective on this key nation, we should go as far back as the communist revolution of the late 1940s, and the subsequent formation of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1949, since when many developments have taken place both within the party as well as for Chinese citizens. The CCP and its cadres “are changing in ways that make creative solutions to political governance problems feasible than a repeated violent reaction to social change, as in 1989” (Smith, 2003). While progress and reform is on the party agenda, its leadership still retains useful traditions and customs. A case in point is the utilization of nomenklatura system for selecting party leaders. Its critics will point to its shortcomings, including its inability to curb corruption within the party ranks. But the nomenklatura system was not devised to deter corruption. Also, the cadre responsibility system was meant to act as an analytical tool for zeroing in on the primary goals of the party and assessing the success of various policy initiatives; and it has proved equal to this stated objective (Dickson, 2006).
The political transitions in China over the last sixty years have not been without moments of indiscretion and impasse. When in September of 1949, the communist revolution was complete and the CCP ascended to power, the people of China were relieved and also hopeful; Relieved of closing a conflict-ridden chapter of their recent history and hopeful of a brighter future. It can safely be said that their hopes were fulfilled to a large extent. The CCP has to be credited for bringing about a degree of economic and political stability in the first decade of their reign. The subsequent years proved to be more challenging for the CCP leadership, which had to deal with famine caused by its Great Leap Forward program. From these early days, when the party and its members were still learning the ropes of governance it has now become a sophisticated and well coordinated political machine. The party building efforts in modern urban settlements (also called ‘shequ’) is an innovative move (Smith, 2003). Further,
“Such local experiments in limited political reform are creating a mixed regime based on one-party rule, Mandarin traditions, and intra-party elections, which will be democratic in its own terms even if not by Western standards…Chinese business classes are likely to play a role that their European counterparts did in the past by eventually promoting democratization”. (Smith, 2003)