Good news, badly needed

Up­ris­ings in Ar­me­nia and Malaysia of­fer democ­racy an un­ex­pected lift.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - ED­I­TO­RI­ALS

AS SUR­VEYS by Freedom House have per­sis­tently re­ported, democ­racy has been on the re­treat around the world for the past few years. That’s par­tic­u­larly true in South­east Asia and Eura­sia, where China and Rus­sia ap­pear to of­fer work­able mod­els of 21st-century dic­ta­tor­ship. So mass up­ris­ings against cor­rupt and au­to­cratic rulers last week in both Ar­me­nia and Malaysia ought to be cel­e­brated as badly needed good news.

On Tues­day, the Ar­me­nian par­lia­ment voted to make op­po­si­tion leader Nikol Pashinyan prime minister even though his supporters hold just nine of 105 par­lia­men­tary seats. The leg­is­la­ture was forced to act af­ter hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple thronged the streets of Yere­van, the cap­i­tal. Mr. Pashinyan un­abashedly called his vic­tory a “vel­vet revolution,” a term that is anath­ema to Rus­sian ruler Vladimir Putin. Yet Mr. Putin, whose regime has long had a choke­hold on Ar­me­nia, felt obliged to of­fer Mr. Pashinyan his con­grat­u­la­tions.

The next day brought an­other shock. An elec­tion in Malaysia that had been heav­ily rigged in fa­vor of the rul­ing party nev­er­the­less re­sulted in vic­tory for an op­po­si­tion coali­tion led by a 92-year-old for­mer prime minister and his im­pris­oned coali­tion part­ner. Prime Minister Na­jib Razak, who ap­peared all but cer­tain to hold power de­spite al­le­ga­tions of epic cor­rup­tion, was ousted — and Malaysia saw its first change of rul­ing par­ties since its in­de­pen­dence in 1957.

The events re­sem­ble the demo­cratic break­throughs of the 1980s and ’90s, when “peo­ple power” rev­o­lu­tions drove some dic­ta­tors from their palaces, while oth­ers fell af­ter un­der­es­ti­mat­ing the un­pre­dictabil­ity of elec­tions. They will surely alarm the rulers of neigh­bor­ing coun­tries — from Azer­bai­jan to Thai­land — that thought their re­pres­sion of non­govern­men­tal groups and in­de­pen­dent me­dia could pre­vent such up­heavals.

De­spite his low-key re­ac­tion, Mr. Putin has cause for alarm: Any vic­tory for demo­cratic rule in the coun­tries of the for­mer Soviet Union offers an ex­am­ple of how Rus­sia could change. Mr. Pashinyan, 42, a for­mer jour­nal­ist and po­lit­i­cal pris­oner, stirred re­bel­lion by walk­ing across Ar­me­nia to protest the at­tempt by for­mer pres­i­dent Serzh Sargsyan to re­tain power by switch­ing to the post of prime minister, a ma­neu­ver pi­o­neered by Mr. Putin. The dis­si­dent-turned-leader says he will pre­serve Ar­me­nia’s align­ment with Rus­sia. But his vows to fight cor­rup­tion and hold demo­cratic elec­tions are in­trin­si­cally at odds with Pu­tin­ism.

Malaysia’s turn­about is still more dra­matic. The prime minister sworn in Thurs­day is Ma­hathir Mo­hamad, who ruled the coun­try from 1981 to 2003 and who turned on Mr. Na­jib be­cause of al­le­ga­tions that he and cronies looted a gov­ern­ment in­vest­ment fund of $4.5 bil­lion. In his day, it must be said, Mr. Ma­hathir ruled with­out much re­spect for demo­cratic norms, but last week he part­nered with the op­po­si­tion move­ment led by An­war Ibrahim, a lead­ing ad­vo­cate of lib­eral democ­racy in the Mus­lim world, who has been im­pris­oned twice on trumped-up sodomy charges — once by Mr. Na­jib, once by Mr. Ma­hathir him­self. Mr. An­war has been promised a par­don and suc­ces­sion to Mr. Ma­hathir as prime minister within two years. If he and Mr. Pashinyan can sur­vive and pros­per, that offers a ray of hope in this dark po­lit­i­cal era.

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