San Jose Mercury News, July 4, 2004 Sunday, Perspective

Asia's Vibrant New Democracies were Built from Within, Unlike Iraq


JAKARTA, Indonesia -- The Bush administration seems to have forgotten that democracy is not as easily exported and marketed as Coca-Cola or McDonald's hamburgers.

Some of the world's newest and most vibrant democracies, which popped up in East Asia over the past two decades, show how strong democracies can be when created from the bottom up, not top down, imposed by outsiders. If a homegrown push for democracy is the key to success, the Bush administration's hopes for Iraq may be in trouble even if the Iraqi government that took power last week is able to wean itself from dependence on the United States.

Here in Indonesia's capital, the fruits of domestic demands for democracy are obvious. It was less than seven years ago that Indonesians took to the streets in bold defiance of the authoritarian Suharto regime, ending 32 years of oppression and wanton corruption. The country has since enacted political reforms that stripped Suharto's military of its formal political power and reclaimed the faltering economy from the clutches of the Suharto family and cronies. After two caretaker governments stabilized the political system, Indonesians are preparing to go to the polls Monday to vote in their first direct presidential election.

They have a choice of four candidates besides President Megawati Sukarnoputri, who is widely criticized as indecisive, but also credited for playing a soothing, maternal role that helped calm the populace in the transition to democracy. Her challengers include a former general indicted for human rights violations by a United Nations tribunal. But the scoundrel is overshadowed by another former general with a relatively clean reputation, the charismatic Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who has emerged as the front-runner. Citizens were treated to their first presidential debates last Wednesday and Thursday, in which the powerful new election commission required each candidate to participate and answer tough questions from a panel of scholars and journalists. The national mood has been one of peaceful exuberance, belying Indonesia's unhappy history of sectarian violence and its more recent encounters with terrorism.

In the Bukitduri district, one of Jakarta's worst slums, brightly colored campaign posters for the five presidential candidates were plastered on walls and windows along the crumbling alleyway that snakes along the putrid Ciliwung River. Residents know what they want from their next leader -- free access to public schools, lower prices for food and gasoline, more job opportunities.

''We've seen all the candidates on TV and heard their statements and it can be very confusing,'' said Tabroni, 33, who makes meatballs in a burned-out shell of a concrete house to sell in a nearby market. ''I don't know who I'm going to vote for yet but I'm attracted to Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono because he has charisma. But all we want is a better life.''
Weighing choices

Across town, at the Sundakelapa Mosque in the upscale Menteng neighborhood, construction worker Puji Dwiyant said early last week that he was going to wait to make up his mind until after he'd heard the candidates all speak in both presidential debates. Speaking over the melodic call to prayer, he said: ''It has to come from my heart.''

As in Indonesia, Asia's other newly minted democracies claimed sovereignty for the people by way of popular uprisings.

The trend started in the Philippines with the 1986 ''people power'' revolution that peacefully toppled dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his extravagant wife, Imelda. The South Koreans followed suit, taking to the streets to back up student demonstrators in 1987 in violent protests that forced military strongman Chun Doo Hwan to abdicate and allow free elections. One of those elections even brought Chun's archenemy, political dissident and Nobel Peace laureate Kim Dae Jung, into the presidency.

Taiwanese staged their revolt at the voting booths, emerging out of decades of martial law and one-party rule by the Kuomintang to defy the nationalists -- and the mainland communists who regard Taiwan as a renegade province. In 2000, the Taiwanese elected a president from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party who favors independence from
Japan not a model

America's best-known experiment in grafting democracy onto another country was in Asia, and neoconservatives point to the rebuilding of Japan after World War II as a model for reinventing Iraq. But the comparison does not hold up.

The Allied forces had the luxury of avoiding a catastrophic invasion of the main Japanese islands at the end of the Pacific war. U.S. troops could spend their time doling out chewing gum to children because they didn't have to fear kamikaze car bombers loyal to Emperor Hirohito. And, unlike Iraq, Japan had a constitutional monarchy with many of the trappings of democracy before the militarists hijacked the nation and led it down the path to aggression.

Still, Japan never took to the dynamism of democracy quite like its Asian neighbors who fought for liberty. Perhaps that's because occupation authorities made the serious error of bestowing democracy upon Japan without the real participation of the Japanese. That left the country with a type of virtual democracy. It has been captive to one-party rule for nearly all its postwar history and the parliamentary process remained a facade behind which an Imperial bureaucracy continues to this day to take care of governance.

Only in the last decade have elected Japanese politicians begun to turn the tables on the powerful bureaucrats, exerting greater control over policy and legislating reforms that add more public transparency to traditionally shrouded administrative procedures.

Contrast that decades-long process for a thin democracy with the dramatic contest for the presidency in Taiwan, which was staged in March amid bellicose threats from the Beijing government.
Chinese pressure

The Chinese have made no secret of their loathing for President Chen Shui-bian, who had campaigned in a close race for re-election this year by appealing to Taiwanese sentiments for independence from the mainland. Chen went so far as to place a non-binding peace referendum on the presidential ballot asking voters how they felt about cross-strait security relations. The referendum, condemned by Beijing and dismissed by Taiwan's old guard as a campaign gimmick, did not pass, indicating a desire among voters to avoid any unnecessary ruffling of Chinese feathers.

Still, the Taiwanese in the end didn't let China bully them in their voting booths; Chen won re-election by a razor-thin margin after surviving an assassination attempt.

The Philippines also held a defining presidential election this spring. Incumbent Gloria Macapagal Arroyo outpolled her rival, movie star Fernando Poe Jr., on May 10 by a slim margin. The results gave Arroyo a mandate to govern; in her first term in office she had risen to the presidency from the post of vice president after her predecessor was arrested on corruption charges.

In South Korea, President Roh Moo Hyun escaped impeachment by hard-line conservatives in the National Assembly this spring when a constitutional court ruled in his favor. Voters in the April general elections tripled the number of seats for Roh's party, giving it firm control of the National Assembly and ending the majority rule of the party that voted for Roh's impeachment on corruption charges.
Much is at stake

Here in Indonesia, democracy so far seems to be holding its own despite the fact that a lot is riding on Monday's election. The country is a front-line state in the war on terrorism. Cells of radical Islamic fundamentalists operate in the unruly archipelago, including the Jemaah Islamiyah, which carried out the October 2002 bombings that killed 202 people in Bali. Yet the nationwide parliamentary election held in April was conspicuous for its relative lack of bloodshed, and at least as of late Friday, the presidential race was equally quiet.

Unfortunately, the new transitional government in Iraq is likely to be cheated out of a peaceful environment as it tries to get its democratic bearings. It faces the scourge of political assassinations and a well-coordinated insurgency. That is a recipe for another autocratic strongman to emerge, not the cordiality of civil society and the rule of law.

It's always possible that Iraq will take to democracy; few observers, after all, through Indonesia would have latched on to the rule of the people so fiercely after decades of strongman rule. But the lesson of Asia is that passion for democracy is often born in the fight for freedom.

KARL SCHOENBERGER is the Asia Pacific correspondent for the Mercury News and has covered
Japan and Asia for 22 years.