Money politics rotting the roots of democracy

Political developments in several Asian countries erode the legitimacy of a one-person, one-vote system

Reading the New York Times article, "Across the globe, a growing disillusionment with democracy", published in this section of the newspaper last Saturday, made me think that Asian journalists must also write more critically - and more regularly - about the issue from an Asian context to keep our politicians honest.

Though there has been a flowering of democracy in Asia in the past two decades with former authoritarian countries like South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Bangladesh and Indonesia becoming thriving democracies, yet, in many of these countries and in the world's largest democracy, India, people are beginning to question the legitimacy of such one-person, one-vote democracy.

Democracy, it seems, is infected at its roots because there is a perception in some countries that politicians come forward not to serve the country, but to serve themselves.

The reason for the infection is corruption driven by money politics. In many countries, one needs a lot of campaign funds to get elected, after which, one then has to return the favours using state resources.

ASIA'S DEMOCRATIC DEFICIT

It is important that Asia learn the lessons of the Arab Spring and not have false hopes that youth uprisings, fuelled by social media, would bring freedom and democracy. Political and social reforms do not happen overnight; they require careful thinking, planning and cooperation between the rulers and the governed.

Across Asia, there are ample examples of democracies in deficit, if not in crises.

As a Sri Lankan looking back on the last eight months of the "Yahapalanaya" (good governance) regime of President Maithripala Sirisena, I'm disappointed with democracy as it is practised in the country, as corruption continues but with new players.

Malaysia, too, is in trouble over its tangled finances.

The Philippines is often held up as an example of what went wrong for democracy. A few years ago, I took a group of 10 senior journalists from Myanmar on a week-long study tour of the Philippine media. On our way back to the Manila airport, the leader of the Myanmar delegation told me: "I don't think we need to go that far - the Philippines has a free and chaotic media but the political system is still corrupt."

In August 2013, people came out to the streets in Manila, protesting over the "pork barrel scam". Known as the Priority Development Assistance Fund, it was designed to decentralise development funding, with members of the Congress getting access to billions of pesos to fund development projects in their areas. In July 2013, the Philippines Daily Inquirer published a six-page expose about how this fund has been misused by several Congress members funding "ghost projects" with no tangible outputs.

When protests mounted, President Benigno Aquino - who was not accused of complicity in it - quietly diverted attention from the issue by picking a fight with China on the South China Sea dispute.

Now, at least one of the Congressmen accused of being involved in the scam is making a bid to become a candidate in the presidential election next year.

The situation in Thailand is just as worrisome. Last year, thousands of so-called "Yellow Shirts" from the pressure group People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) blocked main intersections of Bangkok for weeks to overthrow a democratically elected government.

They called upon the army to take power, which the army finally did by declaring martial law in May that year. The army said it was "not a coup" and they took over government on behalf of the people.

Since 2006, political parties aligned with billionaire businessman Thaksin Shinawatra have been winning election after another. The PAD, on its part, has been campaigning to overthrow each of these governments, claiming that he and his business cronies use their vast wealth to buy votes of the rural voters - who constitute about 70 per cent of the Thai electorate.

It is a well-known fact for some time that in the world's largest democracy - India - much of its state legislatures in particular are infested with MPs who have criminal records and a long history of corrupt practices.

Last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a landslide victory on a strong anti-corruption platform. But, after its election, newspapers reported that an analysis of 541 winning candidates by National Election Watch and Association for Democratic Reforms showed that 186 or 34 per cent of the newly elected MPs have, in their election affidavits, disclosed criminal cases against themselves. Most of these MPs belong to the BJP.

Such infection can be eradicated only if politicians are willing to pass legislation to make election campaigns less expensive, and restrict campaign funding and political donations. They also have to legislate that only people of good character can stand for elected office.

A journalist friend of mine from a neighbouring country once commented that when the strongman leader was in power, corruption was under the table; after he was overthrown, it came on top of the table; and now even the table has become corrupted.

This is exactly the dilemma voters in Asia's democracies are facing. There is no political will to replace the table.

In Thailand, the military government is looking at a new Constitution that may not recognise the normal democratic principle of "one person, one vote" in elections in a bid to stamp out vote-buying.

In Sri Lanka, the new government has promised to look into having small electorates so that candidates need less campaign funds to fight elections. It is also looking into having character assessments for candidates, a ban on political defections and restrictions on perks for MPs. But recent defections following the Aug 17 elections do not augur well for such reforms.

LESSONS FROM ARAB SPRING

Asia also needs to analyse closely the results of the Arab Spring that has turned into a wave of refugees storming into Europe.

The democracy movements that involved foreign-funded non-governmental organisations (NGOs) triggering youth rebellions to overthrow longstanding authoritarian regimes have since been exposed as a hoax with catastrophic results.

These NGOs may bring corruption allegations against a sitting government to topple it. The new government that comes to power soon becomes hostage to the powers that fund the NGOs. In this way, the NGOs wittingly or unwittingly become tools in geo-political battles between big powers.

Libya, Iraq and Syria may have been authoritarian states, but they were stable and largely well governed, though with a strong arm of the state. Syria was a model multi-religious state, while Libya used to enjoy living standards akin to Singapore's. Young Libyans were able to get a state-funded university education in Europe under former leader Muammar Gaddafi funded by his government. Today, these very people are at the mercy of human traffickers in their bid to enter Europe.

Many Asian governments in the past year have moved to impose restrictions on local NGOs receiving funds from overseas, coming to view them as risks to political and economic stability at home. It is important that Asia learn the lessons of the Arab Spring and not have false hopes that youth uprisings, fuelled by social media, would bring freedom and democracy.

Political and social reforms do not happen overnight; they require careful thinking, planning and cooperation between the rulers and the governed. Peace and harmony must be the cornerstone of the future of democracy in Asia.

•The writer teaches journalism and international communications at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 23, 2015, with the headline 'Money politics rotting the roots of democracy'. Print Edition | Subscribe