San Jose Mercury News,
July 4, 2004 Sunday, Perspective
Vibrant New Democracies were Built from Within, Unlike Iraq
By KARL SCHOENBERGER
-- 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
''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.''
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
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.
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
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
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
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.