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  • Democracy’s FutureThe Asian Spectrum
  • Muthiah Alagappa (bio)

Early in the post-World War II era, a majority of countries in East and Southeast Asia had democratic political systems. Over time, however, many of these were supplanted by authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. By the early 1970s, only Japan retained a fully democratic system, with Malaysia and Singapore belonging to the category of semidemocracy. The February 1986 “people power” revolution in the Philippines, however, marked the beginning of a return of democracy to the region. Democratic transitions followed in South Korea, Taiwan, Mongolia, and Thailand, as well as in Bangladesh, Nepal, and Pakistan. These have been interpreted by some Western policy makers and analysts as part of a growing trend toward democratic governance not only in Asia but in the world at large.

According to Samuel P. Huntington, the two variables likely to have the greatest effect on prospects for the spread of democracy are economic development and political leadership. 1 Economically, the countries of East and Southeast Asia are among the most dynamic in the world. Many of them have experienced high-single-digit or double-digit annual growth rates for well over a decade. Even the laggard economies of Vietnam, the Philippines, and Burma are beginning to turn around. Governing elites in nearly all of these countries are committed to economic development and modernization. Provided this rapid economic growth benefits all sectors of society, it should be a positive factor for democratic development in the region.

In a number of countries, however—namely, China, Vietnam, Burma, [End Page 29] Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, and Laos—the same elites who support economic development reject democracy. In part their rejection of the democratic ideal is a response to the perceived “reactionary imperialism” of the West. In part it is aimed at preserving their own power. Yet it also stems from a conviction that liberal democracy is not well suited to Asian cultures and that it will hinder modernization. Even elites in these countries who are supportive of democracy believe that it must be tailored to reflect national values.

Declining political legitimacy, which Huntington identified as one of the changes that precipitated the “third wave” democratic transitions, is in my view a third key variable influencing regime change. 2 Prospects for democratic development in East and Southeast Asia hinge on the interaction of this factor with the two others described above.

The Challenge of Consolidation

The challenge now facing South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Thailand is consolidation of their democratic gains. In Taiwan and South Korea, democratic principles are already firmly entrenched and the conditions that foster broad and meaningful political participation are gaining ground. Yet both countries still face significant political and economic problems that will make further democratic development slow and contentious.

Since the lifting of martial law in 1987, Taiwan has traveled rapidly along the democratic path. The 1947 Constitution has been amended in several important respects, free elections have taken place, the Kuomintang (KMT) party and the government are gradually separating from each other, and a competitive party system is emerging. President Lee Teng-hui is committed to further democratization. Contrary to concerns expressed by some Asian leaders that democratic development would impede economic growth, Taiwan’s economy has grown by 6 to 8 percent annually since 1987. Moreover, the Taiwanese public strongly supports democratic reform. All of these factors make it unlikely that democratization will undergo a reversal in Taiwan.

Still, a number of complicating factors are likely to slow its progress. Taiwan’s future political status gives special cause for concern. There is growing popular dissatisfaction with Taiwan’s international isolation, and an increasingly vocal movement for political independence. A democratically elected government might feel compelled to move further in this direction, aggravating tension with the People’s Republic of China. In this scenario, the increased salience of security considerations would lead to a greater allocation of resources to defense, possibly triggering a renewed political role for the military.

South Korea, too, has undergone significant democratic development since 1987. Elections have been held at the national and provincial [End Page 30] levels, with local elections scheduled for 1995. The 1992 election of the first...