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Lessons for the Mideast from Asia's Revolutions

Author: Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia
February 25, 2011

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As the anti-government demonstrations built into massive protests, hundreds of thousands of middle class men and women swarmed into the squares and long avenues of the capital's major business district. They were at times angry and joyful, hopeful but with little experience. And then, the army, which seemed like it might crack down, turned, with top commanders calling for the dictator's exit. The United States, the most important foreign power, eased his abdication.

The scene, so familiar today, occurred roughly twenty-five years ago in Manila, capital of the Philippines. The “People Power” movement eventually forced longtime dictator and close U.S. ally Ferdinand Marcos to flee to Hawaii. As in Egypt today, there was exuberance in the streets of Manila after Marcos fled, and concern among many in Washington; the Philippines housed important American bases, and many American policymakers worried that Marcos's exit would unleash instability and communist revolutions in parts of the Philippines, leading to rampant anti-Americanism in the former colony and treaty ally.

Few of those American worries came to pass. Though the Philippines still suffers from low-level insurgencies in the south, a communist takeover never occurred, and while post-Marcos governments eliminated America's rights to use bases in the Philippines, the United States eventually restored a visiting forces agreement. Today, Washington has a close military-to-military relationship with Manila.

But if America's worries about a democratic Philippines proved unfounded, Filipinos' hopes for a post-Marcos democratic era never really materialized either. Though the Philippines today is technically a democracy, it is plagued by corrupt and venal politics, poor governance, and widespread dissatisfaction with democratic rule--so much so that the Marcos clan, including his widow Imelda, have made a triumphant return to politics, taking congressional and senate seats. The foundations for the failure of democracy were established very early in the post-authoritarian period--a critical lesson for democratic activists throughout the Middle East today. Indeed, by looking at the lessons of the very early post-revolution periods of several democracies in Asia, we can see how the Middle Eastern revolts could survive--or easily fail.

Asia's Rise and Fall of 'People Power'

Besides the Philippines, other Asian nations underwent democratic transitions in the late 1980s and 1990s, often after large popular movements to push aside dictators. In the mid-1980s, demonstrations in Seoul helped spark a democratic revolution, and after a massive protest in Bangkok in 1992, the Thai military stepped down, paving the way for civilian democratic rule. Taiwan's ruling Kuomintang allowed a transition to more open politics.

By looking at the lessons of the very early post-revolution periods of several democracies in Asia, we can see how the Middle Eastern revolts could survive--or easily fail.

Later, in the early and mid-1990s, the end of the civil war in Cambodia led to free elections; protests that drove out Suharto eventually led to a democratic transition in Indonesia; and demonstrations in Malaysia helped open up space for what appeared to be a truly contested legislature. Farther north, Mongolia shed its past as a Soviet satellite and attempted to build democratic institutions and culture virtually from scratch, with leading politicians in their twenties and thirties taking the reins.

Yet today these countries have enjoyed mixed results. Thailand is not truly a democracy, and the military has regained power; Malaysia has retained a soft authoritarianism; the Philippines is essentially an oligarchy; Cambodia has become an authoritarian state; Indonesia has moved toward democracy but faces serious challenges; and South Korea is a vibrant, pluralistic democracy. And throughout Asia, nostalgia for authoritarian rule remains high, according to studies conducted by the Asian Barometer survey series.

Given the hope for widespread democratic change in Asia that existed in the late 1990s, this mixture of consolidation and reversals is hardly inspiring. But Asia offers several critical lessons for today's changes in the Middle East, where it is likely that some countries will build genuine democracies while others will stagger backwards into authoritarian rule or outright chaos.

Lesson 1: Act Quickly

Much of the future of Asia's emerging democracies was determined within a year after popular protest appeared to end authoritarian rule. In the Philippines, the inability to erase the influence of the country's handful of massive landowners--including the Aquino clan--meant that the country remained mired in a kind of oligarchic politics--and today, without a popular revolution, it will be hard to change that trend. In Thailand, the refusal in the early democratic period of the 1990s to use constitutional change to reexamine the role of the monarchy and its institutions led to the continuation of undemocratic power wielded by the trinity of bureaucracy, military, and palace.

Meanwhile, in Indonesia, the decisions by the post-Suharto executive to allow a referendum in East Timor, though leading to a bloody separation, set the stage for Jakarta being able to allow devolution of power to outlying areas. This would prove critical later in bringing peace to Aceh and other areas. And in Cambodia, the results of the first democratic elections in 1993, in which Hun Sen used threats and force to overturn his loss, set the stage for a political system in which thuggery and coercion would come to dominate.

Lesson 2: Opposition Groups Can Mimic Autocrats

To hold together an opposition movement in the face of a repressive regime requires a high degree of cohesion, even autocracy, within that opposition movement. Yet serving in opposition for so long also can make a leader intensely fearful, seeing threats or spies around every corner. Chen Shui-bian, the Taiwanese DPP leader, exhibited many of these traits--tight control of his party and fear, even paranoia, of outsiders. These were survival skills in the opposition in Taiwan, but in government, those traits would doom his administration.

Similarly, Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who has many reasons to be paranoid—he's already been jailed once and is possibly facing jail again on trumped up charges--seems to be positioning his close family as his successors, perhaps because of the same need to close ranks.

In Taiwan, Malaysia, and in other Asian nations, this fear has stunted the opposition as it moves into power, making it hard to compromise and leading to winner-take-all politics. For longtime opposition movements like the Muslim Brotherhood, Iran's Green Movement, or Bahrain's opposition Shiites--some of whose members have been beaten, jailed, and killed for their beliefs--it will be hard for them too, in power, not to exact retribution and close ranks around themselves, turning democracy into a different type of one-party rule.

Lesson 3: Don't Count on the Middle Class

During the eras of street protests, Filipino, Thai, South Korean, Indonesian, Malaysian, and Taiwanese middle classes stood at the forefront of demonstrations, much as middle class men and women are doing now in the Middle East. But less than a generation later, these same middle class men and women often now oppose democracy. In Indonesia and Taiwan, the middle class has continued to be a bulwark for reform, particularly in Jakarta. But in other nations, the middle class no longer always stands for reform and good governance.

During the first years of democratic rule, many Asian middle class men and women became convinced that freer politics would seriously diminish their political and economic power. This belief was not entirely unfounded: elected leaders like the Philippines' Joseph Estrada and Thailand's Thaksin Shinawatra, who rode to power on the votes of the poor in 2001, upheld electoral democracy (winning the most votes) but paid little attention to constitutional democracy (upholding the rule of law and private property). Facing such elected autocrats, in Thailand, urban middle class men and women supported the 2006 military coup, and in the Philippines middle class men and women came into the streets again, in 2001, to push out Estrada, an elected leader. In Malaysia, meanwhile, ethnic Malay middle classes increasingly have rallied to the side of Malay nationalists, worried that changes in the affirmative action policies that favor Malays over Chinese will ruin their livelihoods.

This middle class revolt easily could be repeated in a country like Egypt or Tunisia, if elections bring to power a populist like Thaksin with little regard for the rule of law. But it doesn't have to happen if leaders in the young democracies demonstrate to the middle class a commitment to private property rights, impartial courts, and other checks on power.

Lesson 4: The U.S. Should Take a Background Role

Some of the most successful examples of democratic transition in Asia occurred in countries that received minimal U.S. attention, like Mongolia, or in places where, at the time, Washington had a difficult relationship, like Indonesia. Left more to their own devices, nations like Mongolia were able to experiment with political systems and constitutions. In Indonesia, post-Suharto leaders oversaw a successful process of devolution of power to provinces, bringing more people into the political process and decentralizing the economy.

Such hands-off behavior is, of course, not as possible in a country like Egypt, a vital American ally. Still, given the low level of trust in the Middle East in American diplomacy, Washington should at the least stay in the background. For a start, the United States could channel more aid to democratizing Middle Eastern nations more through organizations like the National Endowment to Democracy, which played a role in assisting Asian democratic transitions.

In the Middle East, Washington's willingness to work with any elected leaders, as long as they do not try to overturn democracy, will be critical. In Asia, apparent U.S. acceptance of nondemocratic means of removing elected leaders, like the fairly recent cases of Thaksin in Thailand or Estrada in the Philippines--even if these leaders had many flaws--has been counterproductive. There remains a tendency in these states for people to look to extra-constitutional methods of changing governments, thereby weakening democracy even more.

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