- Grappling With Legitimacy
Political legitimacy is a subject that has received too little scholarly attention for too long. Studies in comparative politics have for some [End Page 170] time now been heavily biased toward the examination of questions involving political economy. Democratization has begun to attract substantial attention over the last five years or so, but even within this growing body of literature the slippery topic of legitimacy suffers from relative neglect.
Muthiah Alagappa and his collaborators have made an important contribution to reflection on legitimacy and democratization as well as to the study of Southeast Asian politics. Alagappa, who wrote four of the ten chapters and organized the project from which the volume originated, applies unusually strong and effective editorial direction. He sets the tone for the book with three initial chapters reviewing the literature on political legitimacy and constructing an analytical framework for the following seven country-based chapters.
Working broadly within the intellectual tradition of Max Weber, Alagappa begins by arguing that legitimacy has four elements: the normative (shared norms and values), the procedural (adherence to established rules), the performance-related (proper and effective use of state power), and the consensual (public acceptance of state authority). But as he emphasizes, in many developing countries political systems are still weak, core normative goals subject to contestation, and institutions not strongly rooted. Accordingly, the procedural element in particular is of less utility in establishing claims to legitimacy. Exhibiting some fancy (if uncertain) analytical footwork, Alagappa goes on to argue that, in practice, most developing countries have access to a number of “rationales” or “resources” that can underpin legitimation: two of the earlier list of four elements (shared norms and performance) and three new factors he introduces—charisma or personal authority, crises or other politically defining moments, and international support.
None of these is enough by itself to ensure legitimacy, and some are highly contingent. The most important is the normative component: shared values are basic and highly durable. Other components can be double-edged swords: a government’s performance, for instance, can both enhance and weaken its legitimacy. While stabilizing the economy and rekindling economic growth will almost certainly enhance a government’s legitimacy to begin with, over time it will be of declining value as prosperity comes to be taken for granted. More problematic still are the ramifications of sustained economic growth. If economic benefits are not fairly well distributed across society, resentment rises. More broadly, the processes of class formation unleashed by industrial development may be expected to produce new constituencies and demands.
Alagappa’s purpose is to explore the force of these ideas at three different levels: the legitimacy of the nation-state, the legitimacy of the regime, and the legitimacy of the government. His contribution is mainly theoretical, with his seven collaborators providing detailed empirical case studies. This is an intriguing part of the world to examine. It contains [End Page 171] both countries that have enjoyed high and sustained rates of economic growth over several decades (Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia) and others that for various reasons have only recently begun to experience or reexperience rapid growth (the Philippines, Vietnam, and Burma). Moreover, the last decade or so has seen shifts back to democracy or at least growing doubts about the legitimacy of established authoritarian regimes in the region.
The country chapters are all quite good, though some are more strongly analytical and deliver more effectively on the book’s overall agenda than others. Each is by one of the younger scholars working on Southeast Asia today, which brings a fresh feel to the pages. Each offers (at minimum) a very competent overview of political developments in the country under study, highlighting trends in the apparent legitimacy accorded to governments and regimes over the past four to five decades. Generally, there is more attention given to legitimacy problems at the level of particular governments than at the level of regimes as a whole. For my money, the two best country chapters are those by William Case (Malaysia) and Cho-Oon Khong...