Asian democracies

July 08, 2004

IT WAS A notably superlative milestone: At more than 570,000 polling stations on some 14,000 islands spanning three time zones, an estimated 130 million Indonesians -- 90 percent of the electorate -- voted this week in the first direct presidential elections in the world's fourth-largest nation (which, not incidentally, happens to be home to the world's largest Muslim population).

In itself, the Monday vote was a victory for home-grown democracy, a major step in Indonesia's six-year transition from military autocracy. And it is just one in a string of national elections in Asia over the past year and a half or so -- all the product of internal political evolutions not overtly imposed by the United States (which still doesn't directly elect its president).

The Indonesian voting did not go off without a hitch; there was a pervasive problem with folded ballots, causing them to be double-punched and thus invalidated. No candidate got a majority, forcing a run-off vote in September. But the incumbent -- Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of Indonesia's founding father -- ran behind a former security minister with a relatively clean image, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Indonesia voters weren't happy with her do-little presidency and used their new right to show their displeasure.

There's plenty here for the rest of the world to ponder, starting with the Middle East. More than 80 percent of Indonesia's 220 million people are Muslim, but there was little Indonesian talk of creating an Islamic state; democracy and Islam apparently can co-exist without formal commingling. Asia's remaining tyrants -- most prominently in China, North Korea and Myanmar -- also should take notice: Asia, at one time believed inherently suited to despotism, has become a hotbed of democracy. Many of the elections have been messy and flawed, but the trend of raucous but peaceful voting can hardly be ignored.

From South Korea to Sri Lanka, Asians have been vigorously exercising electoral rights. Last July, Cambodians went to the polls, resulting in a standoff just resolved last week by a power-sharing deal between its two main parties. This spring, Malaysians rejected hard-line Islamists, Indians kicked Hindu nationalists out of power, the Taiwanese defied China by re-electing their president, and the Philippines may have re-elected a president, but weeks later that's still contested. And let's add Hong Kong, where hundreds of thousands of residents recently marched to press Beijing to allow direct election of the Chinese region's chief executive.

The U.S. role here is indirect at best. Regional peace is one of the main reasons for this flowering, and the U.S. security presence in East Asia aids that. Rapid gains in wealth, in part built on exporting to U.S. markets, is another major factor. But these diverse, distinctive democracies largely have been hard-won by impassioned internal advocates, something for autocrats -- be they communists or religionists -- to fear.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.