The lure of strongman leaders in Asia

When such leaders seem to thrive in the region, questions arise as to what it takes to keep democracy alive

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (left) and Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte.PHOTOS: EPA-EFE, REUTERS

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte, who revels in a macho, gun-toting style of leadership, has referred to journalists as "presstitutes".

Oddly enough, and perhaps not so surprisingly, similar invectives have fallen from a former Indian army chief who is in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Cabinet.

In Hong Kong, the flame of democracy that burned for over two decades has been decisively extinguished by Beijing, where President Xi Jinping is almost certainly likely to stay in power beyond the usual 10 years served by recent Chinese presidents.

In Myanmar, the military chief just handed himself a service extension in February by preventing the elected civilian government from taking office, and having done so, looks for support from his peer to the south, Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the former general who has run the nation for the past seven years after staging his own coup. Plainclothesmen and regulars have picked up some 40 journalists in Myanmar since the ousting and detention of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, and about half are still in detention.

In some Asian nations, the leaders' popularity has not in the least been affected by a patchy record on controlling the pandemic.

'Teflon-coated' leaders?

This is particularly stark in the Philippines, which currently must have the worst record of extra-judicial killings by any nation that styles itself as a democracy. Mr Duterte's approval rating was 91 per cent in a survey published by Pulse Asia in October last year. That is a 4 point rise on its previous poll in December 2019, before Covid-19 was reported in the Philippines.

In India, likewise, Mr Modi's popularity has risen through the pandemic. A poll published in January by India Today magazine showed that three out of four Indians consider that Mr Modi has done a good or outstanding job handling the virus outbreak - Asia's worst.

This year, India was dropped from Freedom House's list of "free" countries and into a list of "partly free".

Could the Philippines of today really be the nation that ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the People Power Revolution of 1986?

Or, for that matter, how is one to explain developments in India, which a decade earlier had bundled out the late Indira Gandhi after she imposed two years of emergency rule to save herself from an adverse court judgment?

Despite increasing complaints that Mr Modi runs a government that shows impatience with the democratic process and often bends it to his advantage, there is not even a glimmer of a threat to his rule, either from within his party or in the form of a credible alternative.

Are Asians increasingly prone to looking away from the liberal order as a trade-in for what they interpret as "order"? Or are they merely reacting to a period of intense and confusing change and upheaval?

During periods of much stress - sociologists call it a state of anomie - it is not unknown for ordinary folk to look for strength in faith, or leaders who project the appearance of resoluteness and durability.


Forces of coercion

Yet, in all countries where strongmen dominate, there are some things in common. One is the increasing role of coercive institutions - police, intelligence, the tax authorities and even the military. Second, this has often been combined with the subjugation of the judiciary and regulatory bodies to pressure the political opposition and independent media. At the same time, official propaganda tends to be strident.

The Philippines shut down ABS-CBN, the country's largest broadcaster - which had operated for 66 years - and has piled on criminal charges against the Rappler website co-founder Maria Ressa, who has been issued 10 arrest warrants in two years.

The Washington Post reported recently on an analysis by the International Centre for Journalists of almost 400,000 tweets and more than 57,000 Facebook posts and comments directed at Ressa, which noted that an overwhelming number attacked her professional credibility and personal character with terms such as "idiot" and "presstitute".

India has constitutional guarantees on freedom of speech. However, the country ranked 142nd out of 180 in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders. When the index was started in 2002, India was ranked 80th out of 139 countries surveyed.

In February, after Twitter declined an Indian government request to remove hundreds of posts by activists and politicians about the ongoing farmers' protests, New Delhi threatened to jail Twitter staff, and the company eventually blocked most of the posts.

New Delhi then announced the Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code, aimed at getting companies such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as news websites, to comply with content takedown orders. The government defended the rules, saying they prevent "abuse and misuse" of social media.

Chinese President Xi Jinping applauds at the closing session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in Beijing, on March 10, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

Still, it also bears considering whether the rising tolerance for strongmen rulers merely typifies what has always lurked beneath the surface.

Political culture

In some ways, the concept of liberal democracy as commonly understood around the world is alien to the Asian region. It took hold in the post-World War II period and in many places was a by-product of the post-colonial era. Asia's political order has generally been top-down; while Western democracies are premised on the concept that a people get the government they deserve, Asian thinking has tended towards the saying, "As the king, so the people".

With the departure from the scene of the nationalists and charismatic idealists and their replacement by leaders raised in the post-war, post-colonial era, idealism has given way to the practical necessities of governance and a looser interpretation of principles and their application. It hasn't helped either that in the areas where the liberal thinking originated and flourished, many leaders have bent their principles to suit the circumstances.

Two years ago, European leaders, including Germany's Angela Merkel, Britain's Theresa May and the European Union's Donald Tusk, showed up en masse for an EU-League of Arab States summit hosted by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, whom then US President Donald Trump had referred to as "my favourite dictator".

They had their compulsions: General al-Sisi may have put paid to the short-lived Arab Spring in his country by ejecting former president Mohamed Morsi, but they needed his help to stop too many African refugees from using North Africa as a staging point to migrate to Europe. It cannot be missed that the general's act of toppling his political master and seizing power came weeks after watching his Thai peer do likewise.

Democracy's allure

That said, while the liberal order and democracy may not be home-grown in Asia, the democratic urge has definitely been kindled and is possibly irreversible. In Hong Kong, after the outspoken publisher Jimmy Lai was arrested last year, Hong Kongers showed their support for him with a surge of subscriptions to his website. In Myanmar, civil servants - and in rare cases, off-duty policemen too, apparently - have joined the civilian protests against the Feb 1 coup that ousted Ms Suu Kyi.

Political participation is robust; election turnouts are strong. In Indonesia, for instance, the turnout in the 2019 presidential race improved to more than 80 per cent of the eligible votes, from

69 per cent in the previous election held in 2014. Some 70 per cent of eligible Sri Lankans cast their vote in the November 2019 presidential poll - consistent with previous voting patterns.

That Asians see value in democracy is evident from the fact that even nations where the military has heavy influence - Pakistan, Indonesia and, until recently, Myanmar, to name just three - saw value in wearing a democratic cloak.

Strongmen are an uneasy fit anywhere - whether in democratic or authoritarian regimes - because excessive centralisation of power anywhere is dangerous.

While the Dutertes, Modis and Prayuts of the world do not menace people beyond their borders, China's sheer size and strength frequently mean that internal dynamics often spill into the external environment.

Mr Xi's centralisation of power, including his dominance of the military, is thought to have been costly for the rest of Asia.

Some analysts believe the need to please the supremo led the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force to declare an air defence identification zone in the East China Sea, which is now respected by almost every nation except Japan. That initiative on the air force commander's part, goes the thinking, led the PLA Navy to assert itself off the Natunas waters of Indonesia. Not to be outdone, the PLA disturbed the trijunction with Bhutan and India in the Doklam area in 2017, triggering a deep crisis in Sino-Indian relations that worsened with the events in the Ladakh Himalayas last year.

Thailand Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha arriving at the Government House in Bangkok, on March 30, 2021. PHOTO: AFP/ROYAL THAI GOVERNMENT

The key thing about democracies everywhere, and particularly in Asia, is that preserving them is always a work in progress in which all sides need to play a part.

Many believe Hong Kongers lost their best chance to have a larger say in the territory's affairs when they resisted the electoral reforms introduced in 2014. These sought to open the election of the chief executive to all eligible voters as long as China did not object to particular candidates. Now, even that is lost. Some of the most strident critics of Mr Modi's policies consider the farm legislation that triggered much protest as a necessary move by the government, just poorly executed.

The cynical exploitation of an issue to further political ends, too frequently done, can prove extremely costly for the edifice. There's something called cutting off one's nose to spite one's own face.

This article builds on remarks made by the writer at a webinar on democracy organised by the Foreign Press Centre Japan to mark its 45th anniversary.