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Democracy in Asia
Thursday, 05 July 2012 14:46

That democracy has shallow roots in Asia, the most dynamic part of the world economy, is clearly evident from the Economist Intelligence Unit's "Democracy Index 2011". 

Indeed, over the past five years, globally there has been backsliding on previously attained progress in democracy leading Larry Daimond to speak of a "democratic recession".

How does the EIU measure democracy?

Most importantly, while free and fair elections and civil liberties are necessary conditions for democracy, they are unlikely to be sufficient for a full and consolidated democracy if unaccompanied by transparent and at least minimally efficient government, sufficient political participation and a supportive democratic political culture. It is not easy to build a sturdy democracy. 

Thus, the EIU's democracy index is based on five elements: electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government; political participation; and political culture. Countries are placed within one of four types of regimes: full democracies; flawed democracies; hybrid regimes; and authoritarian regimes.

Last year, 2011 was an exceptionally turbulent year politically, characterised by sovereign debt crises and weak political leadership in the developed world, dramatic change and conflict in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and rising social unrest throughout much of the world.  The popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt a year ago were sudden and unexpected, occurring in seemingly infertile territory.  And these revolts were home-grown affairs that overturned a host of stereotypes about the MENA region and caught the outside world unaware.

There were many other notable developments in 2011, such as:

-- Popular confidence in political institutions continues to decline in many countries.

-- Mounting social unrest could pose a threat to democracy in some countries.

-- US democracy has been adversely affected by a deepening of the polarisation of the political scene and political brinkmanship and paralysis.

-- The US and the UK remain at the bottom end of the full democracy category. There has been a rise in protest movement. Problems in the functioning of government are more prominent.

-- Although extremist political forces in Europe have not yet profited from economic dislocation as might have been feared, populism and anti-immigrant sentiment are on the rise.

-- Eastern Europe experienced another decline in democracy in 2011.

-- Rampant crime in some countries—in particular, violence and drug-trafficking—continues to have a negative impact on democracy in Latin America.

Of the 167 countries covered by the index, only 25 are judged to be full democracies, representing 15 per cent of the 167 countries covered, and only 11 per cent of the world population.  Some 53 countries are flawed democracies, accounting for 32 per cent of the countries and 37 per cent of population.  There are 37 hybrid regimes -- 22 per cent of the countries and 14 per cent of population.  Authoritarian regimes number 52, and cover 31 per cent of the countries and 38 per cent of population.

The world's ten most democratic countries are Norway, Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, New Zealand, Australia, Switzerland, Canada, Finland, Netherlands, Luxembourg.  Only two Asian countries are estimated to be full democracies: Japan (21st) and South Korea (22nd).

The wide disparities in democratic development across Asia are exemplified by the Korean peninsula where South Korea is a full democracy, ranked 22nd, and North Korea props up the global listings, coming last of the 167 countries covered by the index.  Although parts of the region—from Myanmar and North Korea to Laos, Vietnam and China—are still entrenched authoritarian regimes, the past couple of decades have seen the spread of democracy in the region overall.

Over the past decade, some 20 Asian countries have held elections, and many have undergone peaceful transitions in government. Despite its problems, India remains the world’s most populous democracy. Yet even in the democratic countries, there are often significant problems in the functioning of political systems.  Democratic political cultures in Asia are often underdeveloped and shallow, such as in the cases of the following flawed democracies -- Taiwan (37th ranked), India (39th), Thailand (58th) Indonesia (60th), Malaysia (71st) and the Philippines (75th).

In only nine countries in the region are elections rated as being both free and fair.  Even in parts of the region that are not authoritarian there is often pressure on the independent media.   It is thus notable that both Hong Kong (80th) and Singapore (81st) are classed as having hybrid regimes.  Other hybrids from Asia are Bangladesh (83rd), Camboidia (101st), Bhutan (104th), Pakistan (105th), and Nepal (108th).  Asia's authoritarian regimes are: China (141st), Vietnam (143rd), Myanmar (161st) and North Korea (167th).

Interestingly, in many countries, Asian Barometer polls show that more citizens believe that the nations’ recent democratic transitions had brought no improvement to their lives than believe that the changes have been positive. Although the Asian Barometer Project found that the majority of Asians say they support democratic ideals, their commitment to limits on a leader’s power is far lower than in most other regions.

In concluding this note, I would like to highlight the case of Japan, which received Asia's top ranking, and scored best on the criteria of electoral process and pluralism, and functioning of government.  Just yesterday, a Japanese parliamentary panel has concluded in a report that the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant was "a profoundly man-made disaster", and that the disaster "could and should have been foreseen and prevented" and its effects should have been "mitigated by a more effective human response".

This report, which is highly critical of all the key parties, is devastating as the panel called the disaster "Made in Japan", because the mindset that allowed the accident to happen can be found across the country.  It flagged up the bureaucracy's role in both promoting and regulating the nuclear industry, and also cultural factors such as a traditional reluctance to question authority.  The panel also found that there was a possibility that the plant was damaged by the earthquake, contradicting the official position that only the tsunami contributed to the disaster.

It is events like the Fukushima nuclear disaster that can provide a true test of a democracy, and in this case Japan has been found greatly wanting.

Economist Intelligence Unit.  Democracy Index 2011, "Democracy Under Stress".

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