Factors affecting democracy in Asia

The weakening of political parties, their refusal to work with one another and the challenges to liberty are among the obstacles for democracy in Asia.

Speaking at a public talk on ‘‘Democratic Dreams: Challenges and Opportunities’ at the main campus, Dr Bridget Welsh highlighted five obstacles and five opportunities for democracy in Asia.

The interested crowd.

The interested crowd.

She said political parties are weakening, losing their traditional base in society because they do not connect or engage with the people. “The problem now with parties is they don’t find policies to address problems of the people. They are too busy holding power, fighting to have governance, too busy with own personalities,” she stated.

She also hit out at elite polarisation, citing the example of BN and Pakatan Rakyat in Malaysia where one political group does not want to work or talk with another, and have two different world views. “They are just like schoolchildren fighting in a schoolyard. People suffer,” she remarked. She also noted the growing elite resistance to transformation, where the traditional elites are not willing to change power and so use military power or issues to hold on.

Dr Welsh looked at the challenges to liberty arising from judicial deterioration and political mobilisation. She said “the loss of judicial independence, contestation over civil law, and civil liberties threatened by attacks on social protests and other legal impediments” are curbing civil liberties.

Dr Welsh.

Dr Welsh.

Other obstacles to democracy are China’s rise as an economic power and increasing inequality among the people. “China is a negative force for democratic change with its steps to prevent UN blockages of Myanmar and reducing conditions for international aid by filling in the gaps to extend grants without asking much in return,” she explained.

The five opportunities for democracy in Asia are liberation technology, youth surge, increasing deliverable demands, greater political Islam contestation, and decline in state patronage.

She said as political parties weaken in their exchange, the Internet gives a “levelling of the playing field”, and in many authoritarian countries, the Internet opens up opportunities to discourse. Dr Welsh stated that younger voters are meanwhile changing the dynamics of the election as each election has 15-20% new people, while rising younger candidates demand for inclusion.

She shared that new types of technology are gaining popularity as the structure of voters change, and cause changes even within the political parties. “Parties that don’t bring in new younger people are fragmented. Most political parties in Malaysia have their engagement gap with the younger population. They don’t connect, and don’t understand.”

Tunku Abdul Aziz Ibrahim (seated) chaired the session.

Tunku Abdul Aziz Ibrahim (seated) chaired the session.

Dr Welsh also mentioned entrenched corruption in campaigns, government distribution and in service delivery, with people increasingly demanding better service and engagement, and how Islamic parties are globally engaging in internal debates about democratisation and are now including women members.

Lastly, she highlighted the decline in state patronage and rise of issue-oriented campaigns. “As the economic pie is contracting and parties have less funds to dole out for money politics, they are forced to focus on issues.”

Dr Bridget Welsh is an Associate Professor in Political Science at Singapore Management University. She is a Southeast Asia Advisor to Freedom House, and regular contributor to Malaysiakini.

About 70 people attended the talk organised by the Socio-Economic and Environmental Research Institute (SERI) and chaired by DAP National Vice Chairman Tunku Abdul Aziz Ibrahim.