Setbacks in Thailand, Afghanistan and Bangladesh suggest that democratic reforms are on the retreat.
It is commonly understood that genuine elections are among the most indispensable prerequisites for effective and sustained democratic governance. And yet as with democracy itself, elections are imperfect and malleable. Often associated with triumphant images – the purple-stained finger or zigzagging queues of hopeful voters risking everything in the face of threats – it is easy to overrate the ability of elections to set the stage for lasting democratic reforms in countries with little history of self-government.
In Asia, many anticipated 2014 to mark a turning point with a number of watershed elections, an opportunity for democratic reforms and consolidation. Yet with a couple of significant exceptions, elections across the region were undermined and manipulated, even annulled. Far from bolstering fledgling democracies, more often than not the “democratic cause” suffered. This record of failed elections may even be part of a larger trend of democracy in retreat in the region, and beyond.
Failed Elections, Fraught Electoral Systems
The year opened with a farcical January parliamentary election in Bangladesh, where the vote was marred by widespread protests and violence. Rather than serve as pawns in a rigged and corrupted vote, supporters of the strongest opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) instead took to the streets. As a result of the boycott, the results were not in question and most citizens didn’t even bother to vote.
Those who braved the disruptions witnessed widespread chaos and violence as 50,000 troops were deployed, dozens were killed, and scores more injured. The ambivalent Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League party shrugged off criticism as her party captured nearly complete control of parliament based on a flawed, illegitimate poll.
In truth, the balance in Bangladesh between military rule, dictatorship, and dysfunctional democracy has always been dubious. But the course of the current government, suffering from endless corruption, chaos, and little appetite for serious institutional reform, much less tolerance of opposition voices, is increasingly authoritarian.
On the surface, Thailand is a country with a more aesthetically pleasing reputation and experience with democratic governance, but an existential divide long plaguing the national polity opened up after Prime Minister Yingluck Thaksin made a crucial political miscalculation last year, allowing the opposition, led by the traditional social elite and royalists of Bangkok, to pounce. An election in February was perhaps Asia’s most conspicuous failure of democracy in action this year.
Opposition to Thaksin and her billionaire exile father, led by firebrand anti-democrat Suthep Thaugsuban, who can hardly conceal his contempt for majority rule, clearly had only minority support (as demonstrated repeatedly in national elections), but nonetheless crafted a persistent strategy to discredit and paralyze the government. In the February poll, protesters succeeded in disrupting voting in 69 of 375 precincts, and Thailand’s anti-Thaksin majority Constitutional Court nullified the election on grounds that it could not be successfully held in a single day. This created perfect conditions for regime overthrow, Thailand’s 12th successful military coup since 1932.
Prompt and efficient steps were taken to stifle dissent, quiet the media, and get on about the business of building a new order, which is certain to further restrict and limit future self-governance, though unlikely to reconcile the nation’s festering social divisions. The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha (soon to be prime minister under the junta) has instituted an unapologetically authoritarian government and is attempting to systematically neuter the Shinawatra family’s influence and prepare the way for royal succession under the watchful eyes of the conservative elite, democracy be damned. Leaders of the coup have received the blessing of ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej to grant substantial new powers and a new Constitution. The pendulum has swung decisively away from democratic rule.
Considering all of Afghanistan’s problems, the summer elections to elect Hamid Karzai’s successor offered a rare moment of optimism for the country (and the American-led NATO coalition who desperately want to leave with a semblance of political and military security). The two candidates, Abdullah Abdullah, Northern Alliance leader and the moderate, former finance minister and World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani, both are relatively moderate and competent. It seemed the election might usher in peaceful transition of power, placing the war-ravaged country on sturdier ground for democratic institution-building, and healing the country’s evolving polity that has suffered under Karzai’s haughty and occasionally intemperate rule.
Though the jury is still out, the announcement of initial election results strained credulity. In the first round of voting Abdullah received more votes but in the second round Ghani’s support surged, nearly doubling. Both men claimed victory, and the outcome was thrown into question. This summer, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry brokered a tenuous agreement to audit the election with UN monitoring and establish a unity government (both extra-Constitutional measures), but the process has bogged down.
Hopes for peaceful transition and a mandate for democracy in the war-ravaged country have transformed into fear in the face of the disputed election, and the worst-case scenario could see the country further fracture along ethnic lines – a disastrous result that can only boost the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Only in India did polls produce in a clear mandate with the landslide election of Narendra Modi. This democratic transfer of power took place in Asia’s most dynamic and consolidated democracy. Working in India’s favor was its rich (if chaotic) democratic tradition, and the inherent power of a lopsided vote. Indonesia may also have dodged a bullet in the recent election victory of Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, but even this poll is in dispute, as the apparent loser Prabowo Subianto is disputing election “irregularities” in front of the nation’s Constitutional Court. Widodo will likely survive, but the close, contested result may stunt efforts at assembling a coalition and slow Indonesian reformasi.
The Problem with Elections
The botched polls of 2014 in Bangladesh, Thailand and Afghanistan illuminate the problems elections often bring to bear in countries struggling to establish sustained democratic rule. Such failures are rich in irony because elections are so often held up as the very foundation of democracy. In fact they are risky and problematic and almost never prove to be a silver bullet. In as many cases as not, elections stoke divisions in societies and foment unrest, setting back progress toward democratic growth or consolidation. What gives?
The problem with elections is that they are only as strong as the weakest link in a country’s government and civic culture. A lot can go wrong. For those in power, they are often exploited as great acts of theater or part of propaganda wars. Outright state-sponsored fraud, vote-rigging, boycotts, state fragility, brinksmanship, civil conflict, outside interference, entrenched interests, and ethnic and religious divisions all can interfere in the complex and drawn out process of elections. There is usually little room for error with so many opposing forces that have incentives to see elections falter. When competitive, they up the ante and exploit the emotions and loyalties of citizens.
Larger Forces – A Retreat from Democracy?
To what degree do the failures of these 2014 elections merely represent the ebb and flow of democratic reform and entrenchment in the region, subject to disparate realities and eccentricities of particular countries? Scholars of democratic consolidation suggest that democratic consolidation is a function of many factors that do not travel along linear paths or march to a predictable or steady drumbeat. Democratization is a process that takes generations, and elections are not determinative in any case.
Still, the suggestion of a “retreat from democracy” is heard more and more, and it goes beyond Asia. While the success or failure of a few elections can only provide hints about the larger question of the state of democracy across Asia, some have noted that democracy seems to have stagnated and is no longer on the march here, or anywhere else for that matter.
After a “third wave of democratization” in the 1970s and the repercussions of the 1989 “fall of the Wall,” Asia’s unconsolidated democracies, which The Economist labels “flawed” or “hybrid” democracies, have actually made little or no progress toward democratic consolidation in the 21st century. According to The Economist Intelligence Unit’s “Democracy Index,” based on aggregated factors ranging from political participation to media freedoms and other civil liberties, Asian democracy is essentially frozen in place, with no forward progress at all from 2006-13.
This publication has noted the recent work ‘Democracy in Retreat,’ by Joshua Kurlantzick of the Council on Foreign Relations, which lays out a case that large global forces are pushing back the spread of democratic reforms worldwide. There is also the reality of a 1.4 billion strong elephant in the room. China’s influence is of course the subject of wide analysis and commentary, and its government is generally unconcerned about high-minded concepts of the consent of the governed or legitimacy when choosing among who to engage. (Interestingly, China has embraced Thailand’s military government, just one example of how its strength is not benign or passive, but actively leveraged in many cases to resist democratic governing.)
Asian leaders have a reputation for prioritizing economic development and growth over human rights and shining western-style pluralistic democracy. Until recently, it was widely assumed that democratic norms would follow in natural stride as long as nations built their economic bases. Growth and democracy could achieve forward thrust together. That is increasingly called into question, not least in part to China’s rapid ascent.
Whether or not democracy has peaked in the post-Cold War, post-globalization context – whether free and fair elections based on international norms maintain a certain potency in Asia – are questions that should keep world leaders awake at night. Even if democracy is not in full retreat, it no longer seems to be guided by the same forward momentum as before. If history is any guide, elections will not be the determining factor in developing momentum. In fact, elections are just as likely to constrain democratic consolidation and reform.
Andrew Oplas is a Washington D.C.-based writer.