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Analysts Say Democracy Elusive in Some Asian Nations; Quality Slipping in Others


Only four years ago, one Asian nation after another held successful elections. Democracy seemed to be catching on. But non-democratic trends have returned this past year. Kate Woodsome and Heda Bayron examine political developments in the region from VOA's Asia News Center in Hong Kong.

Pakistan's hopes for democracy have been shattered with the assassination of former prime minister and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.

Ms. Bhutto had returned to Pakistan from an eight-year-long exile last October to run for prime minister for a third time. Western nations had hoped she could bring legitimacy to the military-backed government of President Pervez Musharraf and help steer Pakistan closer to democracy. Without her, those hopes have faded.

Ms. Bhutto's death caps a tumultuous year for the country.

In November, President Musharraf temporarily imposed martial law following fierce criticism of his nearly decade-long military rule. He has since relinquished his post as military chief and scheduled elections in January.

Baseer Naveed of the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong says he doubts the vote will be fair.

"If those elections happen, then they should be engineered ones because the election commission is totally under the army control," said Naveed. "That ruling clique does not want the most popular leader should come in power."

Elsewhere in Asia, people's right to a say in how they are governed remained elusive.

In Thailand, the People Power Party swept to victory in December in the first general elections since the military deposed the elected prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, last year.

Mr. Thaksin's allies dominate the PPP, and political analysts say their election success is a symbolic rejection of military rule.

The polls aimed to restore democracy to Thailand. But it remains unclear whether the military will honor the people's choice.

This past year, Hong Kong saw races for chief executive and district councilors, and a legislative councilor by-election.

However, voters were not allowed to fully participate in the polls, and the results left many constituents wanting the real deal - universal suffrage.

Voters in the autonomous Chinese territory can only elect half of their legislators, and only a privileged 800 people can elect Hong Kong's leader.

Pro-democracy lawmaker Alan Leong, who ran unsuccessfully for chief executive in April, says universal suffrage is key to making Hong Kong work for its people.

"The future of the democratic cause in Hong Kong is absolutely uphill," said Leong. "We really want to articulate for the people how democracy is important, why it is important so that the people will be able to see for themselves that a democratic government could do far better than the government now which lacks mandate and legitimacy."

And in Kuala Lumpur last November, tens of thousands of Malaysians rallied for electoral reforms ahead of next year's election. Police arrested several opposition activists and crushed the protests with water cannons and tear gas.

In Malaysia's semi-democracy, gatherings larger than five people need state permission, and the government heavily influences the press. Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi said the November crackdown helped maintain peace and order, but critics say it was an infringement of the few liberties Malaysians enjoy.

Patricio Abinales, a professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University in Japan, says democracy took a beating in Asia this year, even in places like Thailand and the Philippines, where voters have nurtured democratic institutions following decades of authoritarian rule.

"There's a marked decline in the expansion of substantive democracy," said Abinales. "The changes that happened in '86 in the Philippines, and in Thailand, that put down the military regime or more autocratic governments - there's been a retreat from that coming in the form of two things: One, the emergence of money politics as a way in which strong executives come to power and dominate the political process, and the other one is the remarkable decline of citizens-based, civil society groups participating in local politics."

Philippine President Gloria Arroyo, once considered a reformist leader, regularly fends off corruption allegations and coup attempts or rumors of them. In addition, her government and the military are accused of sanctioning the killings of hundreds of journalists, activists and political opponents.

Dr. Lao Mong Hay, a senior researcher with the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong, says the political turmoil is a reminder that Asian leaders lack a strong sense of democracy.

"Since all [Asian] countries have been ruled or governed by the rule of man, based on the power of the emperor or absolute kings, and laws are derived from their word or decisions of those emperors or kings - without the cultural basis and the absence of the rule of law, I think it's very difficult for democracy to strive unless there are definite efforts by a ruling elite and especially by intellectuals," he said.

Lao Mong Hay says Asian governments have often referred to a Western concept of democracy simply as a public relations exercise to get Western endorsements and aid.

But he says that as China becomes a bigger influence in Asian politics and economies, regional governments do not have to promote democratic reforms as much as they did before.

Chinese investments have helped strengthen the rule of authoritarian regimes like those in North Korea and Burma. Beijing also has helped protect them from the economic impacts of international condemnation.

In September, Burma's military government violently suppressed pro-democracy protests, killing many people, including Buddhist monks.

Beijing refused to vote for sanctions against Burma at the U.N. Security Council and, as a result, the military government barely wobbled under international pressure to start reforms and talks with the democratic opposition.

China keeps strict control over its own citizens, arresting and harassing activists and journalists and those considered enemies of the state.

Some analysts say China's economic development and the opening up of its financial markets are helping foster a more democratic society. But after more than two decades of rapid economic growth, the speed of China's political reforms remains slow and not always steady.