In the Asian Tigers too, democ­racy is in re­treat

The East African - - OPINION -

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 aldo 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 rightwings 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.

Tech­nol­ogy has a lib­er­al­is­ing ef­fect in au­to­cratic so­ci­eties but a po­lar­is­ing ef­fect in democ­ra­cies

L. Muthoni Wanyeki is the Africa di­rec­tor of the Open So­ci­ety Foun­da­tions. Muthoni. Wanyeki@openso­ci­ety­foun­da­tions.org

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