For the past half century, democracy has been the political ideology. The cold war saw a concerted effort to promote democracy, led by the USA. Since then, more and more countries have moved towards some form of democracy as the specter of communism was beat back. The idea of everyone’s opinion being considered in an equal and fair manner, without prejudice, captured the imagination of millions around the world. The recent spate of political upheaval in Arab stats, dubbed the Arab Spring, was heralded as the dawning of true democracy in the Middle East. But reality presents a far more murky picture, one where democracy’s success and future are both called into question. Here’s an examination of where democracy stands across the world.
Although Myanmar has now held elections, freed democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and shown increasing openness, it remains a far cry from having true democracy. Japan seems to be going through new prime ministers like they’re merely disposable cups with six different prime ministers in just as many years. It hardly seems to be a good sign of a stable and mature democracy when the prime minister’s position seems to be nothing more than a revolving chair with a new occupant every year or so.
In Asia, Thailand has been thrown into political turmoil in the aftermath of Thaksin Shinawatra’s removal/departure. Much like the extremes of the US political system, the red-shirt vs. yellow-shirt divide has become a symbol of the paralysis of the Thai political system. With occupation followed by street battles and prime ministers brought down by legal tussles, Thailand has seen a period of increasing turmoil. In fact, the pitch street battles forced transport systems to shut-down and even required military involvement in an attempt to end them. Whether Yingluck Shinawatra will have better luck healing the divide and moving Thailand towards the democratic utopia as advertised remains to be seen. She faces a difficult dilemma because, as noted by Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science professor at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University#, “If she doesn’t try to bring Thaksin back, Thaksin won’t be happy. If she tries to bring him back, his opponents won’t be happy”.
Hong Kong might appear to be moving towards democracy, but I would really compare it to inching like a snail. I’ve argued that Hong Kong’s political process is getting more mature, that is not the same as saying Hong Kong is making significant moves towards democracy. The other city-state to consider is Singapore, which whilst far from a very open democracy, nevertheless commands considerable economic might and still manages to provide amply for its civilians.
Of course, all this happens in the massive shadows cast by China which has managed to be simultaneously prosperous and anything but a democracy. Although it has fallen from it’s glory days of 8% growth, China still manages a more than respectable 7% growth rate and has managed to beat most expectations with its economic growth. Although aspects of the system may appear to be supportive of independence and democracy (what with ‘independent’ candidates and all), it would be pretty hard to convince anyone that there are plans for anything other than continuing the one party rule. And as many people in China would concur, what’s so bad about that. Whilst China has a long way to go to improve, there is nothing yet to suggest conclusively that it would be entirely impossible without democracy.
Next time: The Middle East