Saturday, October 17, 2009

Nurturing Asian democracy

The seeds of democracy have been sown in much of Asia and green shoots can be seen across the region. Today there are democratically elected governments in all eight South Asian countries and many in Southeast Asia. The region stands at a crossroads. Some are young democracies, like Bhutan and the Maldives; others, like Afghanistan, Nepal and East Timor, are emerging from decades of conflict; and some have opted for democracy over military rule, like Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh. These countries have a choice. They can deepen the roots of democracy or slip back into old ways.

Democracy is a continuous process that does not end with elections. Free and fair elections are but a first step. They go hand in hand with efforts to provide opportunities for people's voices to be heard and to participate in decisions that affect their everyday lives; for the rule of law to be applied equally and to ensure access to justice for all; and for greater accountability and inclusiveness.

Asia has the promise of democracy but also the challenge of poverty. Natural disasters strike with unfailing regularity. In the past couple of weeks, the region has faced a spate of disasters with devastating impacts. The region also faces several other daunting challenges - the global economic downturn, climate change and high levels of inequality.

Experience has shown that, if governments are not responsive to the needs of the people, they will turn against them.

Corruption can undermine the efforts of governments to deliver services to the people. Electoral democracies are not fulfilling their promise if the government is mired in corruption. Anti-corruption policies are an essential ingredient of any attempt to deepen democracy. But prevention is better than cure. An open and transparent environment with laws and regulations in place that guarantee people's access to information and to seek redress - so that the public can hold their leaders accountable - are even more important.

Deepening democracy is the answer to a more effective and responsive government. All the main democratic institutions - the government, the parliament and judiciary - need to meet the people's needs in order to deepen democracy. Defining the roles and responsibilities of all levels of government, bringing the governing institutions as close as possible to the people - through decentralisation and devolution of power - to make them accountable, are vital.

But the delivery of services may be compromised unless the rule of law is strictly applied with effective, independent and honest judges upholding the rights of their fellow citizens, and members of parliament providing adequate oversight of the government's functioning.

In some Asian countries, the judiciary has played a remarkable role in defending the rights of its citizens, for example in Pakistan, where lawyers and judges took to the streets, or in India, where the judiciary is renowned for upholding economic, social and cultural rights. In other countries, more effort is still needed to ensure the full independence of the judiciary.

Democracy in Asia also faces the challenge of inclusion, which calls on countries to apply the basic principles of democracy to all regions, social groups and sectors. Representation of the poor, women, marginal castes and ethnic communities, protection of minorities, and bringing government to the poor, remain problematic. Another challenge is to deepen democracy and to take it beyond the elite.

As Mahatma Gandhi said: "In a true democracy, every man or woman is taught to think for himself or herself. The spirit of democracy cannot be imposed from without, it must come from within."

The experience in Asia demonstrates that democracy is a quest and a struggle. Because the type of democracy a nation chooses to develop depends on its history and circumstances, countries will necessarily be "differently democratic". But democracy is about more than a single decision to hold elections. It requires a deeper process of political development to embed democratic values and culture in all parts of society - a process never formally completed.

Asia is well positioned to take on its own path. It is also home to four of the world's largest democracies: Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and Pakistan. A clear consensus for democracy is emerging across Asia with democratically elected governments in all South Asian countries and most of Southeast Asia. The question now is: how will they be sustained and strengthened for the ultimate benefit of the people?

While the seeds of democracy have taken root, they must now be nurtured to survive, grow and flourish.
By Ajay Chhibber UNDP regional director for Asia and the Pacific

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