Asia no bow to rich democracy

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Author: Dan Slater, University of Michigan

The end of the Cold War promised the global spread of wealthy democracies. After three decades, this promise has unfortunately not been kept.

In the mid-1990s, Adam Przeworski noted that Eastern Europe and Latin America were seeking the “Northwest Passage”: a route to reach the wealthy economies and strong democracies of Western Europe and North America. This Northwest Passage proved elusive. Rich democracy has emerged nowhere new in the so-called West.

Rotate your globe to the East and the story is similar. Japan, South Korea and Taiwan were the only wealthy democracies in Asia at the end of the Cold War. They remain so today.

Why has Asia’s “Northeast Passage” to wealthy democracy proved as difficult to locate as Przeworski’s “Northwest Passage”? An easy answer is that the Northeast Passage leads to China, not Japan. But this story only goes so far. Apart from the exceptional case of formerly socialist Hong Kong and Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, no Asian society sees its destiny defined by China, at least not yet.

The problem is that the obstacles to late Asian development combine with the obstacles to late Asian democratization. These obstacles keep states weak. And in a mutually reinforcing way, these weak states lack the capacity to overcome either obstacle.

Strong economies and strong democracies clearly require strong states. What is less clear is why states remain weak in the first place, and how weak development and weak democracy reinforce each other.

States remain weak because state building is politically difficult and risky. Unless political leaders need to strengthen the state for urgent purposes of national defense, or to hold together broad coalitions through rapid growth and downward distribution, they are unlikely to do so. These states tend to remain fragmented, captured by oligarchic capitalists who demand tight property rights for their own investments in low-tech, natural resource-dependent sectors.

Captured states are unable to foster the technological modernization needed to forge national wealth. Nor do they provide democratic health.

A stable democracy depends on sustainable economic markets. It is only once the state has acquired economic centrality and authority that the question of who will occupy political office will carry major economic stakes for voters.

States unable to foster transformative economic development are also unable to enter into transformative distribution agreements with society. Without these stable agreements, democracy is not at all a matter of economics. Elections are a matter of personalities, charisma and narrow patronage promises.

Economies fail to catch up; democracies fail to consolidate.

Only four Asian countries have achieved high-income status while building states that command national economic life. Three are the democratic developmental states that crossed the Northeast Passage: Japan, Taiwan and South Korea.

The fourth is Singapore. Although the People’s Action Party is hardly progressive, it is efficient and authoritarian. Citizens know what to expect when they vote for him, and the Party is working hard to deliver the economic growth and social programs they promise. Lasting economic negotiations have stabilized authoritarianism in Singapore, while entrenching democracy in Northeast Asia.

The same cannot be said of the Southeast Asian countries that once seemed most poised to find the Northeast Passage: Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand.

Malaysia comes closest. Following the ethnic riots of 1969, Malaysia’s Barisan Nasional coalition built a stronger, more distributive state to prevent their recurrence. Maintaining this coalition required faster growth. In the 1980s, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad began to “look east” toward Japan. While Mahathir’s Malaysia enjoyed moderate economic success, his authoritarian inclinations hampered democratic progress.

Unlike Asia’s four “main” economies, Malaysia remains in the economic “semi-periphery”. Its top exports are electrical machinery, but three of its top five exports are petroleum, palm oil, and rubber. Even its abundant manufactured exports are heavily dependent on foreign “core” technologies. Malaysian-dependent development has incubated a class of inefficient business oligarchs with little interest in state-building or stable distribution deals.

Like Malaysia, Thailand saw its best chance to cross the Northeast Passage interrupted by authoritarian and oligarchic forces in the early 2000s. During the brief reign of Thaksin Shinawatra, democratic elections had real economic stakes. But Thailand’s old conservative alliance between militarists and monarchists has prevented further transformations, both democratic and developmental. Three of Thailand’s top five exports are manufactured goods, with gemstones and rubber rounding out the top five. Growth persists, but economic modernization remains elusive.

Indonesia tells a similar story. Machinery exports now exceed fuel and oil exports in Malaysia, but not in Indonesia. Coal, gas, palm oil and precious metals remain the main exports. Democracy had a surprisingly good run. Yet elections are primarily about religious identity, clientelist credibility, and the popularity of candidates that comes from the creative combination of the two. Indonesian voters do not have the opportunity to choose from parties offering differently transformative development and distribution deals.

No Asian country captures the syndrome of weak government, slow development and economically meaningless elections better than the Philippines. Among its top five exports, fruits, nuts and metal ores exemplify the Philippines’ enduring semi-peripheral position. Weak state capacity is needed to keep technologically advanced firms open to foreign investment. Elections rarely have major economic implications. This year’s incestuous battle royale between family dynasties to succeed strongman Rodrigo Duterte is a perfect example.

As the world’s attention focuses on China’s growing authoritarian development state and the erosion of liberal democracy in the United States, we must recognize hybrid regimes and middle-income economies like that of the South East Asia. They remain stuck in both a developmental and democratic rut.

Dan Slater is professor of political science and director of the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies at the University of Michigan.

This article appeared in the latest edition of East Asia Quarterly Forum“East Asia Economic Agreement”, vol 14, n° 1.

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