In the Asian Tigers too, democracy is in retreat

Tuesday December 5 2017

An anti-Duterte protest

An anti-Duterte protest in Manila, Philippines on November 30, 2017. Protesters were denouncing the government's crackdown of activists and what they call US-backed President Rodrigo Duterte dictatorship. AFP PHOTO  

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Relatively uninformed impressions from the banks of the Chao Phraya river in Bangkok:
People use the river. Thai people, that is. Not just the expatriates and tourists on high-end cruise boats and restaurants. It’s a commuter and fishing and transport route, as evidenced by the various types of boats.

Random musing one: What do people in Nairobi use its river for?

Less random musings, informed by the generous expositions of two political scientists from the Philippines and Thailand. It appears the stability and prosperity of regional formations under the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are increasingly being “de-coupled” from democracy.

Cambodia, the Philippines and Thailand are in democratic retreat. The Thai political scientist, extrapolating from recent events in each ASEAN member state, argued convincingly that Indonesia’s is the only democracy left standing.

He also argued, however (disturbingly) that democratic retreat has to be distinguished from a retreat from “legitimacy.” That Singapore is a “soft authoritarian state” with legitimacy. Ditto Vietnam.

The threats to legitimacy of that kind, both said, arose from the instability caused by the retreat of the United States as a counterweight to China. The Africans were aghast, for whom China is presented (uncritically) as a counterweight to the West. We were gently reminded that the arc of history is long: China’s reach over Southeast Asia stretching back 2,000 years, relative to a colonial history of barely one or two centuries. We were also reminded of Japan’s bloody imperial history in the region.

Comparisons are always complex and difficult. And every region has its specificities.

As proven by the attempts to equate the rise of a Duterte in the Philippines with the rise of a Trump in the United States. The Filipino political scientist made some important distinctions that are relevant for us too as Africans.

First, that a Rodrigo Duterte arises in the Philippines in the context of the same (or more intense) concentration of political and economic wealth as anywhere in Africa. With 178 political dynasties dominating political power. And 40 families taking home the benefits of no less than 76 per cent of the Philippines growth rate.

And that Duterte has promptly commenced the insertion of his own family into the division of the national spoils.

Second, and more importantly, as distinct from the growth of the populist right-wings of the west, the populist right-wings of Southeast Asia are fuelled not by the exclusion of the peasant and working classes from national spoils, but the exclusion of the aspirational, consumerist middle- and upper-income classes created by those political and economic dynasties from the “global” consumer capitalism to which they aspire but cannot buy their way into. At least not fully.

Third, that apart from that, technology has “a liberalising effect in autocratic societies but a polarising effect in democracies.”

Thus the fact that the most vitriolic, discriminatory and violent expressions on social media come not from the peasant and working classes — who should actually be the most upset about exclusion — but from the educated middle- and upper-income people who do actually know better.

It’s all about the money at the end of the day.

L. Muthoni Wanyeki is the Africa director of the Open Society Foundations. [email protected]