Browsing articles in "Asia and Pacific"
May 25, 2014
Erika Hernandez

The Thai Military: A Control Freak?

Source: Getty Images / BBC

Crowds protest democratic return. Source: Getty Images / BBC

Thailand’s military announced that it would take over the country’s politically unstable situation this Thursday. It initially denied that it was a coup d’état. Over the weekend, the military dissolved the Senate signaling that a coup d’état was indeed being orchestrated. But to what extent is the situation in Thailand really that volatile? To begin with, Thailand’s socioeconomic has been improving. Income inequality has been extraordinarily reduced over the last two decades from a Gini Index of 45.22 in 1981 to 39.37 in 2010. Despite being hit by the world economic downturn, Thailand is now the largest vehicle producer in Southeast Asia. It is often referred to as a “tiger cub economy” as it has followed Asian Tiger economies’ path of economic progress. However, the development of political institutions has not reached the same level of economic advancement. So far, Thai society remains divided between two main groups: royalists and urban middle classes; and, the rural masses. The power struggle that has come into sight is an indication of the current vacuum of power of having an aging king unable to make decisions, the uncertainty concerning his succession and the possibility of democratization.

In order to understand the current situation, two aspects are pertinent. First, the Thai military has had great importance throughout the country’s history. Not only has it participated in nearly 20 putsches and coups since 1932, but it is a figure that has gained respect sometimes even more than the king. This may be so because the military strongman, Field Marshal PlaekPhibunsongkhram, managed to construct Thai national identity out of its diverse population during the 1930s-1940s. Second, all of the pro-establishment groups received positive incentives which have enabled them to maintain cohesion. These groups were supported by the United States as they offered air bases to bomb Indochina during the Vietnam War. These two aspects have strengthened the military’s prowess vis-à-vis challengers of the establishment, which are left-wing, rural and often segregated groups.

Thailand’s socioeconomic division has always been present. In spite of an improved income equality, such division is most visible than ever due to the corrosive sense of power vacuum and the fact that once excluded groups are now economically empowered. Since the 1960s, its GDP growth has not been impressive but its economy has grown a little less than the Asian Tigers. During this period it achieved growth rates of 3-5 percent. The country maintained these rates during most of the 2000s until 2009, when the global financial crisis hit the tiger cub. Today, its economy has barely grown (0.1% in 2011), which suggests that the current situation might have helped to fuel unrest. Using Huntington’s terms, Thailand has undergone a “Green Uprising” by which lower classes have expanded their voices through voting for left-wing representatives. The left-wing movement has been supported by the former elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who pursued populist welfare policies. Pro-establishment groups, including the military, ousted Thaksin in 2006. However, the powerful elite miscalculated that Thaksin had already managed to assemble some grassroots groups that are now protesting against the military takeover. Nevertheless, these groups remain uncoordinated. Accordingly, the minority (pro-establishment) still controls the judiciary and the military and it has used variegated strategies to rid of democratically elected leaders since 2001.

The lack of certainty about succession and the coup worries the international community. Nevertheless, the situation should be seen as both a threat and an opportunity for democratization. Although Thaksin remains in exile, he is a figure that has been able to articulate political preferences of the lower strata through populist policies amidst a monarchy. The royalty has remained silent and has humbly accepted the military coup. Some potential factors that could help untangle the situation are world powers like the United States and China, exit of foreign direct investment and increased coordination by the minority or the majority. Whether a politician, supported by Thaksin, rises with a more coherent and credible argument able to solve the impasse, allure members of the middle class, lower and middle income strata might be able to function unanimously. Yes, the power of the numbers matters. But it only does when its goals are articulated into a specific set of achievable actions. So far, the military is trying its best to weaken such efforts.

Mar 27, 2014
Erika Hernandez

Populist India? The Future of Indian Politics

Source: The Economist

Graph source: The Economist

For decades, India has been the perfect example of a stable democracy, which has often prevented criticisms regarding the perseverance of its consociational model. Lijphart’s theoretical contribution was that such model was grounded in a parliamentarian model that was more representative of minorities, a fundamental tool for solving conflicts across ethnic groupings. Yet, despite India’s so-called success, the latest events question the perseverance of such model. Could it be possible that Western values on fairness and income inequality be disintegrating the fabric of the caste system? What we know so far is that its GDP growth inconsistently reflects economic expectations of the lower echelons. Hence, although evidence already shows a resurgence of left-politics, there will likely be a stronger and greater resurgence of populism in India in the near future.

In India, discontent with corruption and inequality is on the rise as VIP motorcades travel across the streets of Punjab. Despite the new laws narrowing motorcades use to only top Indian government officials, this has done little to scale down the VIP cult. Not only has it contributed to increase government debt, but it also has offered employment to those with no or very few labor skills –like to people providing for security services. Such situation is also telling about the economy. First, although India’s GDP growth during the last two decades has had its greatest peak at 10.5%, recent statistics show that its GDP growth average of 2012 was of 3.2%. Second, despite its so-much appraised jump towards a more service-centered economy (services represent 56.9% of its GDP pie; industry, 25.8%; and agriculture, 17.4%), the kind of services sectors that it are not the kind that aggregates value in the long term. 85% of India’s jobs are found within the informal sectors; 11% of them are within formal companies. Today, most of value added jobs are not labor-intensive and, hence, are automatized, for the large part (such as the new Volkswagen plant.) Some of the non-value added jobs are those sitting on stools ‘guarding’ property, like guarding ATMs. In contrast, India has not been attracting as much foreign direct investment as Vietnam and Indonesia have been.

Given the large amounts of poverty, the government has been constantly forced to provide other solutions to unemployment and inequality. The poor have been integrated into the economy through the government’s NREGA program. This is a welfare program that guarantees 100 days of wage employment to those without manual skills in rural towns. In 2000, the government also designed special economic zones (SEZs) in order to establish areas with low tax rates and well-developed infrastructure but have had a limited success, with only the IT firms thriving. But the tolerance towards inequality has decreased. After having provided a bullet-proof escort from the Central Reserve Police Force to the business leader Mukesh Ambani –India’s wealthiest man, anger and outrage flooded the media. Additionally, riots in Maruti –caused by workers’ poor living conditions– have been regarded as a symptom of uneasiness with inequality in Indian society. The United Nations / DESA Working Paper No. 45 shows that inequality in the rural areas has decreased and increased in the urban areas, in average. What this probably means is that there has been an important migration from the rural to the urban areas, that foreign direct investment has had mildly mattered (possibly due to low levels) and that government programs have likely helped in this respect. Nevertheless, the arrival to politics of anti-corruption parties like Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is also telling in that it is filling in for a need that Indians have not been provided for.

Today, India seems to recognize the importance of distributive politics more than ever. Regardless of dogma or caste system, the latest events do represent a barometer of increased social restlessness. If there has dominant left-politics in India, the arrival of AAP and its strong left-wing rhetoric suggests that, if it were to gain more power, it could lead the country towards populist politics. Although it propounds increasing accountability, it remains a question whether it will engage in austerity policies if encountered with large deficits. So far, it has made major electoral gains. Last fall, the party came in second place in local elections and pushed the incumbent Congress Party to a third place. The first place was taken by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party but it did not achieve a majority. There are other implications to this. Does this mean that acceptance for the caste system is diminishing and more Western values are being adopted? Does it mean that the strength of a consociational democracy depends upon a strong and equal system that replicates itself in politics and economics, in the end? Political science should carry out more research on this issue, as it would help to incorporate knowledge regarding the durability of consociational democracies.

Mar 21, 2014
Erika Hernandez

MH370 aircraft and democratization in Malaysia. Not moving forward.


Source: The Economist

Source: The Economist

The mystery of the Malaysian Airlines aircraft (MH370) is slowly unraveling as clues have been found gradually. This unfortunate episode has not only affected passengers’ relatives but has also touched people around the world. Despite the efforts against using aircraft as a terrorist tool, it makes us ponder whether we have made progress in addressing non-state actors’ threats. Although we have made substantial progress on this issue, we still need to make further progress in identifying politically-drive pilots, as evidence shows a high possibility in that the pilot might have been involved in the hijack. One major issue is whether the regime’s incapability of handling the situation –such as concealing information– might cause massive protests that could overthrow Malaysian monarchy. Could these events foster democratization?

Whether coordinated or not, non-state actors pose great challenges even to the government with the highest institutional capacity such as the U.S. It is likely that this incident will expose Malaysia’s government state capacities. Not only is the Malaysian government working in the investigation, but authorities of 25 countries are. Its Prime Minister, Najib Razak, recently announced that the plane’s communication systems had been deliberately disabled after take-off. After having looked into the pilot’s house, investigators found out that he was politically active and favored the opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. A few hours before, this leader had been convicted to prison by being charged of sodomy. Such imprisonment would prevent him from running for elections in the state of Selangor, one of the richest states in Malaysia. Several theories has been concocted: that the airplane was hijacked by a few passengers; by the pilot; by the crew; or, by all these three. Some alleged reasons are political affiliations, psychological issues, among others. However, this last evidence suggests the high probability that the pilot was one main perpetrator. The political theory makes more sense when one looks at the ownership of Malaysia Airlines –it is government-owned. The pilot’s discontent towards the government could have been probably expressed through the hijack. The speculation of deliberately wanting to hurt passengers remains feeble. However, the absence of political demands and that airplane crew and passengers may still be alive, indicate that such an act could have been committed impromptu. Nonetheless, investigators are confirming crew and passenger involvement.

Might this incident influence democratization? Yes. Such incident can foster democratization if the hijack helps disclose the state’s incapacity to deal with such events. First, such non-democratic bureaucracy is not used to rendering accountability to its citizens nor to the world. So far, the government has unraveled evidence clumsily. Second, if members of the opposition step-up their coordination efforts. Today, members of the opposition have denounced corruption and cronyism by indicating that the ethnic-Malay party has instituted public policies favoring only the Malay-ethic group. Such policy advantages encompass education and business incentives. Third, if the government is hiding information in order to prevent further political turmoil. This is highly possible considering that authoritarian regimes, tend to avoid giving out leads that may indirectly affect their legitimacy. So, for instance, rendering information on how the pilot and the crew were upset about the government’s order of imprisoning Anwar could directly affect their legitimacy. However, before continuing to make more inferences about a possible government breakdown, there exists a caveat. The opposition leader, Anwar, just publicly ruled out the possibility of the pilot being involved. He also mentioned that he is a distant relative of his daughter-in-law. Unfortunately, this information does not help him in gaining for advocates for his cause –to avoid being sent to jail.

Different democratization theories attach differing causal weights to international influence. In the post-communist region, spill-over effects of the Soviet Union’s demise have been considered strong. By categorizing democratization into ‘waves’, there exists an inherent recognition of international contagion. Although the MH370’s hijack is probably related to political and psychological reasons, it is by no coincidence that this is happening at the same time as protests in Ukraine. Perhaps, some people’s courage to confront governments motivates other to confront theirs too. One important catalyst could be if the government is incapable of delivering transparent information. If this is so, events like this can expose the truth about authoritarian state capacity. In this regard, democracies are stronger. They know that if they are exposed of corruption charges and lack of transparency, they will hand in power to the opposition during the next elections.

Mar 4, 2014

Elections in North Korea

Kim Jong Un, North Korea's Supreme Leader, with his closest military collaborators (from Al Jazeera).

Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s Supreme Leader, with his closest military collaborators (from Al Jazeera).

On January 8, the North Korean news agency (KCNA) informed in a brief communiqué that on March 9, elections for the 13th Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) would take place. At the beginning of February, KCNA published a series of extensive notes on the nomination of Kim Jong Un, who became First Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) after his father’s death in December 2011, as candidate to the SPA for the 111th constituency. Following previous elections, a turnout close to 100% is expected, accompanied with a margin of victory also close to unanimity for all candidates. If results are so clearly pre-determined, how and why do elections take place in this country?

Elections are celebrated every five years in North Korea. The country is divided into 687 electoral districts under a residential criterion, each of which elects a deputy to the SPA. There is only one candidate in each district; they are divided 606 the WPK, 50 for the Korean Social Democratic Party, 22 for the Chongdoist Chongu Party, and 3 independents. It is widely believed that all of them are hand-picked by the directing board of the WPK or, ultimately, by Kim. The two latter parties are not autonomous but belong to the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland, controlled by the WPK. Independent candidates must be members of the Front. The ballot of each district presents a picture and the name of the single candidate, offering two options for the citizens, yes or no. Although the act of marking the ballot is nominally secret, ballots where “no” has been crossed out must be deposited in a separate box, evidently compromising the secrecy of the vote. Allegedly, citizens who vote “no” are taken to labor camps. The Assembly usually meets twice a year, although it must be conveyed by its Presidium, which decides the topics to discuss and the direction of the vote of the SPA members.

The literature on non-democratic regimes widely acknowledges that, although elections are very unlikely to produce a government turnover (even more in countries as North Korea were no opposition parties even exist), electoral exercises serve a number of functions in authoritarian environments. For instance, huge margins of victory transmit an overwhelming sense of strength on the citizenry and the eventual opposition, preventing challenges to arise. Also, they create incentives for people to try to make it to the ballot due to the benefits involved in being an elected government officer, including material spoils or judicial immunity.

Those theories were developed having in mind systems in which there was some, albeit small, space for competition. In North Korea there is none. Yet, elections are not a mere staging of democratic practices. This is even truer in the first exercise conducted under Kim Jong Un. Analysts have identified two major objectives in this specific contest.

First, a circulation of elites. Elite circulation is relevant in non-democratic contexts because it allows to reward those who have been loyal to the leader, prevents individuals from acquiring too much power, and punishes emerging opponents. This means that, after the series of shifts in the heads of ministries, the leadership of the Army, and widely publicized executions such as that of his uncle months ago, Kim could use these elections to finish defining the group of people that will rule with him and to further alienate from power those who he might consider his opponents. There is very little reason to believe that a new group in power will bring about any substantive change to North Korean policies. Yet, with collaborators hand-picked by him, Kim would have eliminated his father’s devotees and would be able to exercise in full his authority with his closest and more reliable collaborators.

The second main objective for the elections is to force North Koreans to keep a check on the country’s population. Over the last years, with a chronic food crisis due to floods, droughts, and an inefficient agricultural administration, many people have left the country for China. Yet, before Election Day citizens are required to inscribe their names in the voters’ registry. If they fail to do so (evidenced by comparing the current with the previous version of the lists) or do not show up to the polling center on Election Day, they and their families are harassed by the government, many times reaching imprisonment. Any differences between the 2014 and 2009 voters’ lists could be interpreted as defections under Kim Jong Un’s rule, which could be attended in one way or another (very possibly more repression, as opposed to improving agricultural or other kinds of policies).

Therefore, elections in North Korea are not a simple enactment of democratic procedures. Yet their objective is entirely different. While in democratic environments elections serve for people to have a voice in public matters, in North Korea they will be good for Kim to strengthen his position in power and to ensure that the regime is not suffering from major defections from the population.

Feb 5, 2014

Democracy and elections in Thailand

Protests in Bangkok against Prime Minister Yingluck Sharawara, widely seen as a corrupt leader (from Al Jazeera)

Protests in Bangkok against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, widely seen as a corrupt leader (from Al Jazeera).

On Sunday, Thailand held legislative elections. This was the response of Yingluck Shinawatra´s government to the protests against her rule that began in November. Back then, Thais went out to the streets repudiating a draft proposal (which was ultimately rejected within the legislative process) that would allow the Prime Minister’s brother, Thaskin (former Prime Minister himself), return to the country acquitted of all corruption charges against him. Protestors argued that the Shinawatras were damaging the country and had to leave office and be punished. Putting pressure on the government, all opposition members of parliament resigned their positions. Attending this gap, the Prime Minister called for the election. But the opposing Democratic Party boycotted the contest, for which the resulting elected parliament has insufficient quorum to be convened, even less to form a government. Elections were supposed to calm down upheavals in Thailand, but clearly they did not. Even more, with this stalemate the democratic future of the country is taking a step towards uncertainty.

Since Thaskin Shinawatra first came to power in 2001 the country has experienced notable instability. He and his sister have received accusations of corruption, attacks against the media, and abuses against human rights, and there have been some episodes of violence related to the fight against organized crime and insurgencies. Furthermore, Thaskin was ousted out of power by a military coup, contributing even more to the undermining of political processes in Thailand. Now, Freedom House rates the country as being party free, with a score of four.

In spite of this political brouhaha, it is reasonable to say that the elections that brought Yingluck to power and those of last Sunday were carried out under “normal” conditions. No fraud or vote rigging was observed and no major episodes of violence took place, for instance. Yet in this occasion the opposition boycotted the exercise. From one point of view, it is not uncommon that opposition parties refuse participate in a game with a player, the government, which they do not trust. The Democratic Party argues that the exception state declared in December to try to facilitate the control of protests offers no adequate environment for people to go out to vote, that the government is buying off voters in rural areas with low-priced rice, that voting would just serve to perpetuate the Shinawatras in power, and that elections are just a sham to temporarily appease unconformities without performing any real policy or institutional change. To a very large extent the opposition succeeded in its goal. They did not register candidates, mobilized its supporters for not going to the polls, and had some clashes with government supporters resulting in the suspension of activities of some polling stations. As a consequence, a number of individual district elections were declared null, for which the parliament turned out to have an insufficient quorum and cannot be convened. The government will allow more days throughout the course of this month so voters that could not attend the polls do so.

This could be a seen as a successful strategy in de-legitimating a corrupt, yet not necessarily authoritarian, political system. However, what the opposition proposes does not seem to point towards more democracy, but to a wide uncertainty. They plan to challenge the election on the courts, demand that the Prime Minister is removed from her position, and an unelected council undertakes the necessary reforms to alleviate the economic and political problems of the country. Their leaders have failed to elaborate on how his council would act, who would be its members or how it would exercise its authority.

In the meantime, an unpopular Prime Minister will remain in office facing increasing opposition to her rule. Where this will lead is an open question. Expectedly, PM Yingluck will refuse to leave her position unless she is voted out, arguing a respect for democratic procedures. In parallel, the opposition will refuse to participate in any election, arguing the system does not work and that it must be renewed. It will be up to the political actors in Thailand to decide whether these elections lead to the strengthening of their democratic institutions or to the deepening of turmoil in their country.

Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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