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Democracy is reviving in Asia

Tonwhat annoyance Asia’s fair, free, and open societies have largely retreated in the dozen or so years that this column has existed. The golden age of democracy in Asia came in the 1980s and 1990s, when authoritarian regimes in the Philippines, South Korea and Taiwan collapsed. Liberty has been at a disadvantage in recent years.

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Consider Rodrigo Duterte’s attacks on the judiciary and the press when he became president of the Philippines last year. Or Cambodia’s strongman Hun Sen trying to crush the opposition. Or the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, stoking sectarian tensions and intimidating his critics in the media. Or Indonesia’s move to criminalize insulting the president. Sadly, the major exceptions to this recent trend ended up conforming to it. In 2015, Myanmar held happy elections that ended half a century of military rule. But in 2021, the generals regained power in a violent coup and threw Aung San Suu Kyi and her government in jail. Since then, they have ruled the country through terror.

But, if anything, bright spots of democracy are reemerging in Asia. Many expect the reign of Mr Duterte’s successor to be just as dastardly and threatening. Ferdinand “Bon Bon” Marcos was, after all, the son of the late kleptocrat who was ousted by the Filipinos in 1986. However, Marcos, who became president last June, emphasized good governance. His senior cabinet members are dry and pragmatic. He’s asked to be judged on his administrative performance, and so far, it hasn’t been frustrating.

Until July, Sri Lanka was mired in a dystopia run by the Rajapaksa family, led by its drill sergeant President Gotabaya and his greedy brethren. Then, to Mr Rajapaksa’s surprise, last year’s popular protests forced him to flee the country and his family. Sri Lanka’s recovery is in its early stages; but Rajapakshas’ ouster is a fundamental prerequisite for it.

In Fiji last December, power changed hands, in a bumpy but less turbulent way than feared. Its former prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, who ruled for 16 years after the coup and failed to win re-election, agreed to step down after some consideration. Last month, Malaysia underwent a largely peaceful transition of power – with Anwar Ibrahim, the oft-thwarted reformist, as prime minister.

In Thailand, another coup leader, Prayuth Chan-ocha, and his underwhelming army-era cronies now run an ostensibly civilian government and have promised elections this year. Their grip is less certain than they would like; an opposition is emerging against the “old uncle”, almost jubilantly, as its members mockingly refer to Mr Prayuth and his team. While there was nothing to laugh about in war-torn Burma, the ruthless General Min Aung Hlaing inspired a vigorous democratic struggle. As in Iran, it turns out that a generation of younger citizens is less traditional but more demanding than their elders, willing to die for their freedom. Democracy will surely return to Burma eventually.

The points of light are not necessarily patterns. And, it has to be said, vast swaths of Asia don’t know democracy at all. China, Laos, and Vietnam are three of the four remaining Leninist dictatorships in the world—then North Korea. However, the political climate in Asia appears to have changed.

Authoritarianism is in decline because it is not delivering its goods. President Xi Jinping’s missteps in handling the economy, covid-19 and relations with the US have undercut Asia’s admiration for China’s model of governance. Vladimir Putin’s disastrous progress in Ukraine has rattled supporters of the Russian president in Asia. In Sri Lanka, the Rajapaksa family was deported because they let the economy suffer.

What’s more, many Asian countries have long since found a way to get back on track. The Westminster-style systems in Fiji, Malaysia and Sri Lanka, while sometimes abused, support a return to more responsible habits. For all the setbacks in India and Indonesia, their traditions of free elections offer a path to democratic revival. Elsewhere, corrupt dictators have rigged elections to bolster their legitimacy, sometimes losing control of the electoral process. With Cambodia due to hold elections in July, even Mr Hun Sen has shown that political opposition is hard to quell once it is blithely allowed. There is no guarantee his ruling party will win every race. The seeds of a democratic revival in Asia are everywhere.

Read more from our Asia columnist Banyan:
China’s Maritime Neighbors Are Fighting Back (February 1)
Rohingya miss their homeland in Myanmar but cannot go back (January 26)
Who will define what Asia means? (January 19)

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