Southeast Asia: Where Democracy is Much More Than A Vote


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Welcome to this podcast by the Heinrich Böll Foundation. It is part of the ’State of Democracy in Southeast Asia’ series, and this is your host, Johanna Son. In this episode, we take a look at the elections lined up in the region. Can democratic mechanisms like elections lead to more authoritarian rule? We step back to look at what this trend says about the quality of the democracies in our midst.

It’s election season in Southeast Asia.

Cambodia had its general election in July, one that saw Prime Minister Hun Sen’s party winning all 125 seats in Parliament. Indonesia goes to vote in April 2019. Under President Rodrigo Duterte, whose war on drugs has come with extrajudicial killings, the Philippines will be holding senatorial polls in May next year.

Looking further ahead, 2020 is the date for the next general election in Myanmar.

But there is a cloud of worry, even trepidation, hanging over the excitement about making one’s voice heard through the ballot box. I asked Walden Bello, a sociology professor with the State University of New York and former member of the House of Representatives in the Philippines, if he sensed this sentiment as well.


Walden Bello

Yes I noticed also this hesitation, or concern, in the air. I think there is, you know, a sense that some people are asking ‘do elections in fact matter’. .

If before, elections were means by which you know different factions could alternate in power, now people are asking whether that’s still possible, or are we seeing elections as a mechanism to consolidate authoritarian rule.

I think it’s a couple of things - the way that Hun Sen used the last elections where he won every seat in Parliament to legitimize his rule, and then when you come to the question of the Philippines, which is coming up in May, the increasing violence as well as people not knowing what elections play now in the game plan of Duterte.

Why are elections – which are democratic tools – putting in place authoritarian, populist leaders in several countries of Southeast Asia? Is the region in a democracy trap, where the forms and processes of democracy are being set up to produce an outcome that undercuts democracy itself?

In Cambodia, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party went through the motions of an election – but only after following a road map to sure victory. Over the past year, it got the opposition party disbanded and cracked down on independent media.

 “Manipulation, theft of democratic rule” are the words that Thai professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak used to describe what took place in Cambodia. Thitinan, who heads the Institute of Security and International Studies, spoke at a discussion about Southeast Asia in August.

“Now they have a one-party rule, elected one-party rule, not even a competitive electoral system. They didn’t even bother with that, just one-party rule.”

Beyond Cambodia, there is concern that even credible electoral contests have been leading to more authoritarian or iron-fisted rule, and making anti-democracy rhetoric acceptable, popular, or desirable.

We are in “democratic recession”, is how US political sociologist Larry Diamond puts it. The specialist in democracy studies at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University discussed the retreat of democracy around the world at an August lecture in Bangkok.

What does this trend say about the kind, and quality, of democracies in Southeast Asia? Diamond explained that electoral democracy – having competitive election exercises – is very different from liberal democracy.  Having liberal democracy includes a set-up that respects freedom and equality, the rule of law, individual freedoms and accountability.  Having elections and majority rule do not make a democracy make. Bello agrees.

“Liberal democracy is the product of the combination of the fusion of majority rule with liberalism or the respect for individual rights and freedoms. If you just have electoral majority rule, then that in fact is not enough to be able to assure the welfare of society because pretty much, that majority rule can very well result in establishment of majority-backed legislation that would restrict the rights of minorities as well as restrict civil and political rights, and allow a government backed by the majority to undertake many repressive moves that would not be consistent with the liberal democratic model. So I think what you have here is, you know, as Viktor Orban of Hungary put it, borrowing from Fareed Zakaria, illiberal democracy. . .”

Having elections that reflect voters’ choices can, and have, led to worrisome outcomes. How does this sync with the theory that the value of elections lies in the process itself – that as long as they are transparent, free and fair, it matters less what results emerge?

 “We realize now that it wasn’t enough what we were told in school, that it’s just a question of process and whoever wins most of the votes, rules. But in fact, the democratic model that many of us embraced, had these factors that came in, including a constitution, a constitution that assured individual rights, a constitution that promoted social welfare and a constitution that said you must respect the rule of law. Basically what we’re now seeing is that the electoral process is being divorced from many of these - what we might say - freedom and rights enshrined in constitutions in which elections were traditionally in many countries encapsulated in, or you know, meshed with.

Bello looks into this seeming impatience with the versions of democracy we have in our midst. His 23rd book, out in the new year, is called ‘State and Counterrevolution: Explorations into the Global Rise of the Right’.

 “I think that all throughout Southeast Asia at this point in time, with the possible exception of Indonesia, certainly in those countries where you would consider liberal democratic countries where you had a strong element of democratic electoral competition, there is the fear that democracy is in great danger at this point.

There is a view that electoral democracy has not delivered the goods in the areas of equity, income distribution, social change, and removing the elite’s hold on elections.  

“In the Philippines, we had in 1987 a democratic constitution, and it had very good social welfare and economic welfare provisions and nationalist provisions. And the problem was that you have this ideal constitution and a democratic system and then the reality that the elites have hijacked the system and no social reform really took place, and poverty has increased. So I think there is that disenchantment that oh well, this is fine and dandy, great words, great aspirations embodied in the Constitution, but you know these are all words. So let’s try somebody else  - and I think that somebody else was Duterte.”

The perception of having been shortchanged by democracy is coming from the middle class, which Bello and Diamond point out are by no means natural allies of democratization. This is shaping up to be the age of the popular autocrat, not just in Southeast Asia, but beyond.

 “In the case of the Philippines, the fear is that elections have become an instrument for the consolidation of authoritarian rule, not because of electoral manipulation but because you do have a base, a very active base especially within the middle class, of support for Duterte’s authoritarian moves, and for his war on drugs, and for his throwing rights out of the window. One has to face the fact that you have quite a popular person who’s violating the liberal rights and freedoms of democracy and yet is quite popular because of that.”


By-Election in Myanmar

The make-or-break role of a country’s Constitution – and ensuring that deeper roots of democracy are there ­– is evident in the case of Myanmar. Its 2008 Constitution has been called a liability because it institutionalizes the military’s role in politics and makes it untouchable by civilian rule.

Indeed, recent years have shown that being able to choose one’s leaders does not automatically bring about democracy, says Sonny Swe, publisher of ‘Frontier’ magazine.

 “Well we expected so much and things didn’t turn out to be that way, right? So election is, it’s important. Yes, one of the essentials but I think the main problem there we are having is amending the 2008 Constitution. Democracy? Democracy is, I think, we need more mature democracy. This is not a democracy yet.”

You need more than elections, in other words.

“Exactly. Election is only a part of it. You’ve got to get more mature than this, and help build the country. The parties cannot do it, the government itself cannot do it. . . as a good citizen, we got to do it ourselves.”

Whether this taste for authoritarianism is a passing phase in history remains to be seen. But reversing the democratic deficit will require what Bello says are strategies to improve democracy’s reliability when it comes to delivering on its promise of a better quality of life for all.

“I think we have no choice but to continue to defend democracy, okay. But I think the defense of democracy cannot just be saying that okay we have to protect one person, one vote, we have to protect due process, we have to protect human rights. We must do all of that - but we must move towards also bringing about more focus on, after all, the other elements of the democratic revolution - which was equality, and the importance of social and economic change, the importance of making sure that we have a fair distribution of income, that we really reduce poverty to zero, you know - and that democracy is the best way to do that. “

*Johanna Son, editor/founder of the Reporting ASEAN program, has reported on and followed regional issues for more than three decades.