Sun, May 23, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Asia's diverse elections highlight young democracies

A MIXED BAG With an impeachment in South Korea and contested polls in the Philippines and Taiwan, recent polls in the region haven't lacked for excitement


In India, more than 380 million people turned out. So did tens of millions in Sri Lanka, Taiwan the Philippines and South Korea.

In staggering numbers, Asia has taken to voting this year. And if casting ballots doesn't equal quality governance, the elections highlight a dramatic change on the continent over the last 20 years: the spread of democracy.

Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, South Korea and Indonesia all have shed dictatorships and embraced the ballot box.

But democracy is by its nature unpredictable. Guided only by the often-whimsical views of the electorate, democratic countries are saddled with their election-winners -- whether brilliant statesmen or inept leaders who draw in voters with free beer. It's a system where corruption can thrive and demagogues often have broad appeal.

Witness the crime lords running for Parliament from Indian prisons, or the Indonesian general-turned-presidential candidate who's under indictment for human rights abuses, or the fist fights that occasionally break out in legislatures in the otherwise full-fledged democracies of Taiwan and South Korea.

"We all understand that building a democracy definitely won't be easy," President Chen Shui-bian said recently. "Since Taiwan walked away from authoritarianism and strode toward democracy, the road has been extremely hard."

Chen, the first opposition candidate to be elected Taiwan's president, would know. He won re-election in March by just 0.2 percent, his opponent -- chairman of the party that had held power for decades under a martial-law dictatorship -- claimed fraud and trickery, and protesters staged sometimes-violent demonstrations.

Complicating the situation was a bizarre election-eve shooting that slightly wounded the president and his running mate.

"We still need to walk carefully," Chen said.

But up to the mid-1980s dictatorships were the Asian norm, ranging from Beijing's ironclad rule to the kleptocracy of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. India and Japan were the sole functioning democracies in the region.

These days, democratic governments are offering plenty of surprises: the near-tie in Taiwan, this month's defeat of the Indian government, the impeachment of South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun in March for a minor election law violation, followed by public outcry and his reinstatement by the Constitutional Court.

Certainly there are exceptions. China remains the elephant in the living room, its communist autocracy shielded from much criticism by its immense profit potential. Myanmar, formerly Burma, has become an international outcast under its military regime. Cambodia elects its prime minister. Communist Vietnam doesn't.

Nepal has seen nascent democratic rule reversed, with power returning to the king and riots shaking its streets. In Hong Kong, democratic hopes were killed after Beijing ruled that the territory can't directly elect its next leader. North Korea remains one of the most secretive dictatorships on Earth.

Still, with even China holding vaguely democratic local elections, the ballot box is clearly gaining ground.

"There's reason for what the diplomats call `cautious optimism,'" said David Steinberg, an Asia scholar at Georgetown University. "There has been progress in Asia, and, yes, we can expect more progress over time. But we can also expect backsliding."

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