New tyrannies, rising inequality threaten fragile civil liberties

Is democracy a political luxury poor countries cannot afford?

The rise of the Davao City strongman, Rodrigo Duterte, in the presidential polls—and among all classes of the electorate—has raised some alarm over the future of our civil rights and representative processes.

Taken together with the emergence of Ferdinand R. Marcos as the leading candidate for vice president, Duterte’s ascent suggests to a visiting journalist from the Washington Post that “the Philippines is steadily giving in once again to ‘strongman syndrome’—which he defines as “the misguided belief that tough-talking and political will alone can address complex 21st-century governance challenges.”

No Asian mode of democracy
Not just Filipinos but most East Asians have become more uncertain about their political future than they were in the flush of their “economic miracle” (1965-90). No longer do we hear extravagant claims of an “Asian mode of democracy.”

New tyrannies are rising, of which Islamist terrorism is the most terrifying. Mass poverty may be easing. In China alone, 600 million people have already been raised to middle-class status. But income and social inequalities are becoming acute, as command economies switch to the enterprise system.

In sum, the region’s states—though many times richer than they used to be—are realizing they cannot buy themselves out of their democratic deficits. In the ebb and flow of regional politics, some states have moved away from, and others toward, authoritarianism.

Pragmatism in Myanmar
Myanmar’s brisk transition to electoral politics—after 50 years of harsh military rule—has been astounding. By last March, its ruling junta had proclaimed a new charter, installed a civilian chief executive, and elected a legislature—with a quarter of its delegates serving military officers.

With equal pragmatism, Yangon’s democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi, conceded the junta’s claim to a continued political role, though her opposition party won three-quarters of all the Parliament seats contested. Less commendable is her silence on the “ethnic cleansing” of Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority.

Meanwhile, neighboring Thailand has entered another cycle of military rule (since 2007), meant to forestall populist control of the legislature and keep the Bangkok elite in power.

In Malaysia, authoritarianism is tightening up, as popular anger seethes over apparent corruption in high office. The federation’s chief law-enforcer has just proposed restoring the colonial-era law that imposes caning for journalists who refuse to disclose their sources.

By contrast, Indonesia seems well on its way to parliamentary democracy. It has just elected its first President drawn from outside Jakarta’s traditional ruling classes.

Singaporeans have been richer than Americans since 2004. But their country remains a no-nonsense “nanny state,” where chewing gum is banned; and spitting may cost you a fine.

Democratic exhaustion?
In our country, authoritarianism’s appeal seems to come from what the Post’s Richard Heydarlan calls “democratic exhaustion.” Filpinos despair over the dysfunctional bureaucracy, the self-serving politicians, and a profligate elite indifferent to their plight.

In this view, Filipinos are coming to subscribe to the political and economic advantages of authoritarian rule.

For the late-industrializing countries, the chicken-or-the-egg question has been, “What should the modernizing state first attend to: the politics or the economy?”

As Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir saw it in 1992, the Russians introduced democracy along with the free market. The result was chaos and heightened misery.

By contrast, the East Asian states and Deng Xiaoping’s China accepted the market while deliberately abstaining from democracy—and became prosperous.

Authoritarian advantage?
The Singapore strongman, Lee Kuan Yew, habitually argued that political order may claim priority over individual rights. As he told the 18th Philippine Business Conference in 1992:

“I do not believe that democracy necessarily leads to development. I believe that what a country needs to develop is discipline more than democracy. The exuberance of democracy leads to undisciplined and disorderly conditions which are inimical to development.”

Similarly, the influential Harvard political scientist, Samuel P. Huntington (1927-2008), recognized the need for an “authoritarian transition”—as in Japan, Turkey, South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia and Singapore.

These states all modernized their economies under authoritarian terms. Only later did they open up their political systems to democratic contestation.

Insecurity and inequality will always be part of the enterprise system. “They are the unavoidable result of market operations, the price of capitalist dynamism.”

But, though unavoidable, inequality can be mitigated by government activity. And it is right that the state should do so—because economic insecurity, if left to itself, will erode social order and generate a populist backlash against the economic system as a whole./ by Juan T. Gatbonton, Editorial Consultant, Manila Times