From Southeast Asia to the US: Democracy’s fragile moment

Clockwise from top left: Philippine president-elect Rodrigo Duterte, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US presidential nominee Donald Trump. AFP
Clockwise from top left: Philippine president-elect Rodrigo Duterte, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US presidential nominee Donald Trump. AFP

From Southeast Asia to the US: Democracy’s fragile moment

Who’s leading whom? In the United States, following the recent California presidential primary, a mud-slinging showdown between two would be national leaders, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, is on track.

And the Philippines – the US’s one-time student in democracy – has just voted in a leader in political incorrectness.

Who would have thought a man who vowed to kill criminals and grant himself a presidential pardon, who boasts of being a womaniser and has joked about wanting to rape a missionary and talked of the killing of journalists, would win a popular election and become head of state. Such is the dramatic turn of events in the Philippines, a nation shaped by centuries of Spanish and then by decades of American colonial rule.

This July, Rodrigo Duterte, widely known as “Duterte Harry” for his no-holds-barred, crime-busting reign as a mayor, will take over the reins of government as president from Benigno Aquino whose mother, ironically, restored democracy in the Philippines.

These days, it seems, it is “more American” in the Philippines.

The Southeast Asian nation, however, is not alone. Cambodia is well-used to a strong leader, and Myanmar remains in transition from strong military rule to something still evolving under strong-willed, and one-time democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi.

The demand for strong leadership is evident everywhere. Witness the rise of Vladimir Putin in Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Xi Jinping in China, Viktor Orban in Hungary and Narendra Modi in India. Somewhat late to the party but no less striking is the rising popularity of Trump.

With the gradual increase in prosperity after World War II and the end of the colonial era, there was a notion, perhaps misguided, that the demand for freedom and democratic rights would follow a linear path. Today it would appear that people are increasingly ready to relinquish rights for a measure of security. Fear and uncertainty are gripping the world and guiding a course that could lead to closed borders and markets, clamp downs on human rights and an erosion of empathy for the huddled masses still yearning to be free.

Fear and insecurity are a lethal combination. Leaders and would-be presidents are capitalising on the frustrations of ordinary people and their understandable and increasing disgust with inequality, corruption, the concentration of wealth, and, collectively, the feeling that citizens are not better off today and may well not be so either tomorrow.

In the West, economic prosperity and the certainty that hard work would be rewarded has fallen prey to globalisation and digitalisation. Manufacturing shifted from the West to countries that offered cheap labour. Technology further disrupted industries.

More disruption is inevitable. Self-driving cars, robotic service personnel, Artificial Intelligence systems that replace financial analysts, paralegals and copy editors – the list goes on. A 2013 report out of the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford estimated that up to 47 per cent of jobs are under threat of displacement by technology in the next 20 years. Add to this the potential impact of climate change, terrorism, the refugee crisis, and pandemics, and the fear factor multiplies.

Across the world, political systems have performed poorly. In developing countries, governments are failing to provide jobs for growing populations. In developed countries, legions of underemployed face leaders who have not come up with a way to combat the displacement of the work force as a result of technology and globalisation.

Broken promises and the failed policies on the part of the political actors have now led many citizens to reject the democratic political system altogether. Calls go out in the united states, in Asia and elsewhere for strong leaders to revive the old order and make once great nations “great again”.

Yet, no longer is the nation-state the only framework within which to work. Problems have to be solved in a global context. More than ever, our world needs bold leaders that also will double-down on multilateralism, strengthen regional alliances and global organisations to coordinate policy responses. We also need an inclusive global digital agenda that ensures a role for human labour that is economically and politically feasible.

The belief that interdependency can be defeated by isolationist politics is misleading. Building walls and imposing trade barriers will make the people they are meant to protect less adaptive and resilient than those outside them. They will weaken economies as they breed resentment and leave us ill-prepared for global threats that demand cooperation to solve.

In this time of fear, when people are willing to give up their power to the strongman – or strongwoman – democracy itself is under siege. But the forces they are seeking protection from are far beyond the abilities of one person to control. They will give up their freedom in exchange for security and they will end up with neither.

It is never too late for leaders or would-be leaders to change.

Curtis S Chin, a former US Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. Follow him on Twitter at @CurtisSChin. Meera Kumar, a New York-based freelance writer, was formerly with the ADB. Her commentary has appeared in journals throughout Asia.


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