It wasn’t a good week to be a senior official in a developing democratic country. You had a choice between violent demonstrators outside your door just because you happened to lie like any politician (Hungary), a military that removed you from power when you were out on a business trip (Thailand) or, much worse, underworld mafia operatives who shot you dead for doing your job with a bit of aplomb (Russia).

Looking closer at the travails of democracy itself, it does appear that Southeast Asian countries have been building a particularly awful record of late, which bears scrutiny.

Christmas carols

The Ghost of Christmas Past has been haunting the corridors of power in Malaysia and the Philippines.

In the former, ex-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad has suddenly turned into a vicious critic of his handpicked successor, Abdullah Badawi. While the United Malays National Organization has stood behind the current prime minister and eschewed Mahathir’s calls for dissent, trouble may only have started. A return to Mahathir-era politics would represent a setback for the politics of “reason” being championed by Abdullah.

Meanwhile in the Philippines, even as economic growth remains on trend, the widening gap between rich and poor Filipinos has polarized politics. With the government being accused of adopting harsh tactics against political activists in recent days, comparisons to the martial-law situation in the 1970s are already being made.

The Ghost of Christmas Present dominates the headlines in Thailand, for obvious reasons. The prime minister was sacked by the military in absentia, with the new leaders being apparently endorsed by His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Thais, sick of a government that has in essence been hung since February, appear to support the move as well.

The Ghost of Christmas Future has worked to keep the government of Singapore firmly in its paranoia-driven zeal, as evidenced by the handling of international protesters during the latest meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. While the ostensible reason for the crackdown was to prevent international delegates from being insulted, the real reason could well be that the government does not want to provide ammunition to its own (local) detractors. As the country’s role in Asia changes, its leaders want to guarantee continuity with current policies.

Southeast Asia, where democracy goes to die

However, all of the above only hints at the underlying class currents that dominate political moves. In particular, I believe that recent events across Southeast Asia highlight the strength of the middle class in guiding political direction.

A case in point is Thailand, where the middle classes are obviously sensitive to overall economic growth. Thaksin Shinawatra has clung on to power by mixing populism with business-friendly practices that in effect froze out the interests of middle-class voters. The combination adopted by Thaksin is similar to the one used by US Republicans, and hence unpalatable to a number of people in the middle.

With no electoral means of removing Thaksin from power, and facing the likelihood of grand institutions such as the monarchy falling into disuse, Thais have chosen to push democracy to one side and allow a transition period within which to implement more stringent political laws, while also buying time to fight the insurgents in the south.

Similarly in Malaysia, the resurgence of Mahathir can be attributed to the slow unwinding of bumiputra-friendly policies by Abdullah, which would imperil a large number of small-to-medium-scale businessmen. The very threat of Mahathir’s return will likely push the government away from this direction, to ensure continued handouts to bumis – ethnic Malays who are a majority of the population, but have been traditionally depressed economically. It does not matter so much that the country’s minorities will be ill-served by this trend to revert to affirmative action; what matters more is that Malay middle classes will remain in control, ensuring stability.

The government of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in the Philippines owes much to the “people power” movement that toppled Joseph Estrada, who was a champion of the poor. In other words, it was very much a middle-class uprising that was supported by the Catholic Church under the late cardinal Sin (which admittedly is the most “happening” name for a bishop, but I digress). Arroyo’s continuance in power is ensured as long as the middle classes support her, which still seems to be the case. This is the reason putative military coups fizzle out quickly, rather than reaching the presidential palace as they used to in the olden days. Religious authorities help to keep the poor in place, with bromides about peace and the meek inheriting the Earth.

Singapore is like Lake Woebegone, in that everyone is middle-class or better and hence has a positive economic interest in continued political stability. The lack of a credible opposition in the country isn’t so much a function of locals not wanting change, but more a question of not wanting change at all costs.

Indonesia has been similarly hamstrung by the warring self-interests of its Javanese population against minorities elsewhere. While much of the country’s wealth remains in the hands of select families and the politically connected, [1] the country’s poor found a voice after the overthrow of Suharto. However, as with the Philippines, a combination of religion and personality-driven politics helps to keep populism in check.

Democracy and India

Surrounded by autocracies, Islamic states and failed democracies – and these aren’t mutually exclusive categories – India simply looks to be in the wrong time zone. A democracy with an established constitution from 1950, the country only once succumbed to the Asian plague of dictatorship, in the 1970s. The effect of that intervention was horrible, as I wrote in the above-referenced article. [1] Still, India can justifiably be proud of being the only Asian country where the judiciary can overturn the legislature, and where the executive remains in the background where it belongs.

That is not to say that democracy is a success for everyone, though. By setting up a system akin to British elections with their “first past the post” mechanism and disallowing powers for unelected members, unlike the British, Indian democracy has become a numbers game that produces some truly cringe-worthy winners.

In essence, the problem with Indian democracy is not that just about anyone cannot win, it’s that they most often do.

In many ways, Indian democracy has failed its middle classes. The sheer number of poor people and the multitude of divisions imposed on caste, religion and economic lines simply mean that winning agendas need to be sufficiently broad, populist and short-term-focused. Failure from a middle-class perspective arises because of a lack of structural reforms that could help to improve the country’s growth rate. [2]

This is no platitude about incompetence, however. Rather, politicians would love to take aim at targets that are reviled by the poor and treated indifferently by the middle class. Cola companies offered themselves as a convenient target, failing to appreciate just how attractive targets they made in the socialist landscape. When foreign observers stand around shaking their heads at such foreign-investment-unfriendly policies, they simply fail to grasp the populist underpinnings that drive political posturing.

Osama bin Laden and his cohorts chose to target train users in Mumbai, but “erred” in placing the bombs in the first-class compartments. These are occupied by middle-class Indians, who have no political voice. If the terrorists had seen the poor job done by the Mumbai government in controlling floodwaters, once again an inconvenience more to middle classes than others, they would have concluded that no reaction would emanate from murdering middle-class Indians. The only people with any voice in India are the poor; the rest are forced either to resort to corruption as the rich do, or to indifference, as the middle classes do. The conclusion is thus that Indian democracy survives mainly because the middle classes have in essence been relegated to second-class citizenship.

[1] See The wages of corruption, Asia Times Online, August 19.
[2] See Indian reforms: All bark, no bite, Asia Times Online, August 16.