It’s the System, Stupid

From TIME Asia, April 17, 2006.

Thailand’s inconclusive April 2 general election and the subsequent resignation of Thaksin Shinawatra as Prime Minister show that democracy still has a long way to go in many Southeast Asian nations. For democracy to flower in the region, several conditions have to be met, but at present they exist only partially, or not at all.

The first condition is that elections must be competitive. Because Thailand’s opposition felt it had been marginalized during Thaksin’s tenure, it boycotted the April 2 polls, thus denying the Prime Minister the fresh mandate he needed to build confidence in his beleaguered leadership. The election was not a contest, but a referendum on Thaksin, yet voters who said “no” to him had no alternative. In democracies, the process of choosing whom to represent you is as important as the outcome. Southeast Asia has a deficit of realistic choices for voters. Malaysia, Singapore and Cambodia have long been dominated by a single political party or coalition, as has Thailand, too, since Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai came to power in 2001. Until elections in Southeast Asia provide genuine opportunities for citizens to change their governments, democracy will be limited.

Thailand’s current crisis reflects another weakness in democracies in the region: political parties that revolve around individuals rather than issues or ideologies. Democracy is more than a popularity contest; it requires meaningful representation. This cannot take place if the national leadership relies on the decisions and actions of one man or woman. Political parties need to be institutionalized, to reach into the grassroots and provide channels for feedback, to offer a variety of clear policy platforms, and to hold vigorous internal leadership elections and debates. With Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai or Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrats, for example, voters are forced to vote for an individual, not a set of ideas. When these politicians get into trouble over personal matters—Thaksin’s business dealings, the allegations of corruption against Arroyo’s husband and son—the entire nation suffers because its leadership is tied too closely to a single person. As a crisis develops, personalized parties are inclined to throw up another individual as the country’s savior—a particularly common phenomenon in the Philippines. This leads to further instability. The people, deprived of a legitimate feedback system that they can have confidence in, are then forced to take to the streets to submit their grievances.

So a free media and civil society need to be allowed to flourish, too—institutions that channel the voices of the people and make governments more accountable. Yet during Thaksin’s tenure, many journalists and publishers felt intimidated and vulnerable. The administration also failed to protect activists fighting for issues like human rights and the environment. Many were killed, or simply disappeared. The most publicized case involved Somchai Neelahphaijit, chairman of Thailand’s Muslim Lawyers Association and vice-chairman of the Human Rights Committee of the Law Society of Thailand. Somchai was abducted in March 2004 in Bangkok, and his body has never been found. Five police officers were prosecuted; one was convicted of assaulting Somchai and sentenced to three years in jail, while the others were acquitted. But Somchai’s disappearance has not been fully resolved. The arrests of activists in Cambodia last December, the murders of 12 investigative journalists in the Philippines in the past two years, and the failure to adequately respond to the killing of human-rights icon Munir Said Thalib in Indonesia are all examples of the pressure on media and NGOs in many parts of Southeast Asia.

The region needs competitive elections, stronger and more representative political parties, and a vibrant civil society. A short-term fix, such as the replacement of a discredited leader, is inadequate. Without institutional reforms, democracy in Southeast Asia will not bring the freedoms that it promises—and that the people deserve.