Asian Democracies

6 May 2004

Asian Democracies: The Half-Full Glass

By Gwynne Dyer

Twenty years ago, the Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan and South Korea were all dictatorships. Now they are all democracies, and between March and July of this year they will all have held national elections.

But the president of South Korea is under impeachment, the president of Taiwan was almost assassinated, an alleged war criminal has been nominated by Indonesia’s biggest party as its presidential candidate in the July 5 election, and an ex-movie star and high-school dropout who just mumbles a few well-rehearsed sentences before breaking into a pop song at his rallies is the leading challenger for the Filipino presidency in the election on Monday (10 May). Is this glass half-empty or half-full?

Fernando Poe Jr. (FPJ or ‘Da King’ for short) makes Arnie Schwarzenegger look like a serious politician. “He’s an actor who has been living in a bubble,” said one Filipino journalist. “He has nothing between the ears.” But he is an old drinking buddy of Joseph ‘Erap’ Estrada, the film-star president who was toppled in 2001 by street protests against the massive corruption of his administration. Now ‘Erap’ is on trial for plundering public funds, but the same wealthy families who backed him have now thrown their support behind ‘Da King’, including Imelda Marcos, widow of dictator Ferdinand Marcos. (She also happens to be Fernando Poe’s godmother.)

If FPJ wins, he will almost certainly pardon Estrada before plunging his own snout into the trough, and the few hundred families who control 95 percent of the wealth in a country of 80 million people will be safe once more. But their position was not in great danger under incumbent president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo either.

She was not personally corrupt (being wealthy already), but the general corruption that causes an estimated 40 percent of the national budget to end up in the pockets of officials hardly declined at all under her rule. Small wonder that so many of the Filipino poor are inclined to vote for someone who at least seems like one of them.

It’s a hell of a way for democracy to end up in the country that pioneered the concept of non-violent democratic revolution in Asia eighteen years ago — and it’s not a lot better in neighbouring Indonesia, where a similar revolution turfed out General Suharto, the long-ruling dictator, only six years ago. Suharto’s old party, Golkar, emerged as the biggest party in the parliamentary elections on 5 April. It has now nominated General Wiranto, army head in the last years of the Suharto dictatorship, as its presidential candidate in July — even though he s accused of sponsoring atrocities in East Timor in 1999.

Then there is South Korea, where President Roh Moo-hyun faces impeachment on charges of election violations and corruption as a result of a vote in March in the outgoing parliament. And Taiwan, where President Chen Shui-bian suffered a stomach wound in an assassination attempt just before the election on 20 March, which he then won by the narrowest of margins on a sympathy vote. The opposition accused him of faking the incident, but he still ended up in office for another four years.

So what was the point of it all? Between 1986 and 1998, every one of these countries, home to over 350 million people, overthrew corrupt and oppressive dictatorships, mostly by non-violent public protests. But how much has really changed? Not nearly enough, would be most people’s answer: the glass is half-empty.

But who ever believed that democracy would automatically end poverty and corruption (in the Philippines and Indonesia) or political chicanery (in South Korea and Taiwan)? Democracy doesn’t make people wise or good. It’s just a better tool than any of the available alternatives for choosing people who are wiser and better to run our affairs — but we mustn’t expect miracles.

In the end, Filipinos probably will re-elect President Arroyo by a narrow margin, partly because she really is wiser and better than ‘Da King’ (it isn’t hard) — and partly because she has just spent about $25 million in public funds to create temporary jobs in poor areas. And while President Megawati Sukarnoputri will probably lose the July presidential election in Indonesia because of her lacklustre leadership, the likely victor is not General Wiranto but another former general with a much better reputation, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

The recount in Taiwan confirmed the original result, the assassination attempt against President Chen was almost certainly genuine — would you hire someone to shoot at you with a handgun while you are in a moving car and just graze your stomach? — and the opposition now seems to be grudgingly accepting the legitimacy of the outcome.

The impeachment charges against South Korea’s President Roh were a cynical political ploy by the opposition parties, who were duly punished by the voters. The liberal Uri Party, which supports Roh but had only 49 seats in the outgoing National Assembly, won 152 seats in the mid-April parliamentary election, giving it a slim majority and guaranteeing Roh’s survival.

Sometimes the choices in a democracy are not great, nor do the voters always get it right. But it’s a better range of choices than the average dictatorship offers, and people aren’t stupid: they do get it right most of the time. The glass is half-full.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (“She…them”; and”So…empty”)