New Democracies

22 September 2004

New Democracies

By Gwynne Dyer

Vote for “the prettiest candidate,” said Indonesia’s President Megawati Sukarnoputri as the election campaign got underway, and the voters took her at her word. On 20 September, they voted overwhelmingly for her former chief security minister, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who is no beauty – but then, neither is she, and at least he sings very nicely. None of his campaign rallies was complete without a rendition of “Rainbow in Your Eyes” by the former four-star general and his wife, Kristiani Herrawati. The voters loved it.

Mr Yudhoyono is actually quite a serious man who was seen by his army colleagues as efficient and incorruptible, but even his closest adviser, Muhammad Lutfi, admitted: “This election is not about policy. This is a popularity contest so we sell (him) like a brand image.” It’s enough to give you doubts about the future of Indonesia’s new democracy.

It’s not just Indonesia. There has been an avalanche of new democracies in the past twenty years, and there are doubts about the quality of democracy in a lot of them. At the same time, many people in these countries have become nostalgic for the sheer stability of the old regimes: in a poll conducted by the Asia Foundation last December, 53 percent of Indonesians agreed with the statement: “We need a strong leader like Suharto (the former dictator, overthrown in 1998)…even if it reduces rights and freedoms.”

East Germans who miss the threadbare economic security they had in their part of the old divided Germany; Filipinos who elected an ignorant and corrupt former movie star as president because he played heroic roles in movies; South Africans who blame the huge crime rate on their post-apartheid freedoms: the new democracies of the world are full of people who are not too sure that it was all such a good idea. Was it?

The United Nations Development Programme has calculated that eighty-one countries moved towards democracy in the 1980s and 1990s, and that by 2002 one hundred and forty of the world’s almost two hundred independent nations had held multi-party elections. The old-fashioned tyrannies are a dwindling minority, and this year will see more free elections than ever before: 110 of them, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

Six hundred and fifty million Indian voters; 450 million in the European Union; 166 million in the United States; 153 million in Indonesia; 109 million in Russia; and hundreds of millions more in countries ranging from Australia and Canada to Taiwan and Ghana: at least a third of the adult members of the human race will be asked to vote in an election this year, and most of them will actually do so. The only really big countries where elections either don’t happen at all or have no discernible impact on who runs the place are China and Pakistan.

Only thirty years ago, the only real democracies in Asia were India, Sri Lanka and Japan, and there were only about a dozen in Europe. The last genuine democracies in Latin America were foundering under a new wave of military coups, and the Middle East and Africa were practically democracy-free. It has been an astonishingly rapid transformation — which may explain why people seem so ungrateful for their liberation.

Most of the world’s democracies are new, and many are still suffering from the economic upheavals that accompanied the process of democratisation. The voters are inexperienced, so demagoguery works better than in the older democracies (not that it doesn’t often work in those countries, too). There is also the disillusionment that comes when people realise that changing the political system does not solve all the country’s problems. It just changes our way of dealing with them, hopefully for the better, but it’s bound to take some time for the benefits to become apparent.

When a society opts for democracy, it is betting that the collective wisdom of the majority is superior to the judgement of any single powerful individual or group. That is almost certainly true in the long run, but it can be quite wrong in the short run. On the other hand, the kind of individuals who rise to power in tyrannies are even more prone to catastrophic errors of judgement.

Take Indonesia. The thirty-year Suharto dictatorship, covering most of the country’s independent history, delivered economic growth but siphoned off most of the profits for the benefit of a narrow elite of the dictator’s cronies and collaborators. The three presidents who have governed the country in the six years since Suharto’s overthrow, chosen by a parliament where interest groups that were powerful under the old regime still had much influence, were disastrous in different ways, but all were incapable of addressing Indonesia’s problems effectively.

By contrast, in the first election where Indonesians were allowed to vote for a president directly, they have rejected the do-nothing incumbent, Megawati Sukarnoputri, the not very bright daughter of independence hero Sukarno, and also the man who was tipped as her successor, indicted war criminal General Wiranto, in favour of the plodding sincerity, dogged honesty and fine singing voice of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The popular wisdom may not be all that sophisticated, but it probably isn’t wrong, either.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 6. (“East…it”; and “Six…Pakistan”)