Book Review: Mapping Contradictory Democratic Experiences in Asia

Protest at Ratchaprasong, Thailand 2010 (Wikimedia Commons)

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Incomplete Democracies in the Asia-Pacific: Evidence from Indonesia, Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand

Edited by Giovanna Dora Dore, Jae H. Ku, Karl D. Jackson

Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, 304 pp.


After the advent of Sukarno’s “Guided Democracy” in Indonesia more than fifty years ago, renowned scholar of Indonesian politics Herbert Feith asked why democracy in Indonesia failed.[1] A similar question stands at the center of Incomplete Democracies, and this new book extends the investigation to three other Asian states: Thailand, Korea, and the Philippines. Modernization theory—which broadly posits that with proper intervention, traditional societies can modernize along the same trajectory as developed ones—was an influential paradigm at the time Feith wrote. With challenges from several fronts, the theory faded, but it has reemerged after a new wave of democratic transitions in the 1990s. In its revamped version, the theory now recognizes a distinction between establishing democracy and consolidating it.[2] Incomplete Democracies is an ambitious new edited volume that positions itself within this theoretical framework, while at the same time, using hard data to question some of the theory’s postulates on how to consolidate a democracy.

This book emerges from a decade-long project by Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) that surveyed citizen attitudes and behaviors in each of these four states to examine why their democracies remained immature—and thus, “incomplete.” The authors conducted the survey longitudinally to enable analysis over time, with the first interviews coming in 2000 and a second set in 2011. The authors also placed emphasis on common citizens rather than elites, so as to shift attention from the process of elections to everyday practices in the periods between elections—the real substance of democratic governance.

Incomplete Democracies questions easy cause-effect linkages between economic development and democracy. The authors demonstrate that citizens’ increased understanding of democracy need not lead to increased support for it. Although understanding of, and support for, participatory politics is high, many citizens of these countries still consider authoritarianism a viable governance model.

The authors then analyze each of the four countries in-depth, in light of the SAIS attitudinal survey data. Although each developed its own style of incomplete democracy, the data indicates two broad trends across the four countries. First, a burgeoning middle class need not lead to more democratic participation or more active support for democracy. Second, high voter turnouts mask a hierarchical form of civil society activism and political participation that reflect the influence of local societal structures.

Finally, the authors address the implications of these trends by examining how satisfaction levels for these countries’ past presidents correlate with support for a particular regime type. Large proportions of respondents in all four countries expressed “neutral” views about past presidents, indicating either political disengagement or reluctance to vocalize their views. Additionally, many citizens expressed satisfaction with authoritarian or dictatorial leaders, including Suharto in Indonesia and Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines—with urbanity and traditional networks more correlated with political preferences than societal class. The authors conclude that liberal democracy “is, and probably always will be, a work in progress.”

Reading this book calls to mind Harry J. Benda’s 1964 review of Feith’s book, in which Benda—a Yale historian focusing on Indonesia and Southeast Asia—asks: why should one expect democracy to succeed in states that had a long history of a different form of rule?[3] Why should one expect democracy along the Western liberal model from the countries examined here?

The SAIS studies embed Western liberal ideas into their analyses, thereby underestimating other forms of political participation. For instance, the authors measure non-electoral participation by level of participation in strikes, petitions, letter writing, and demonstrations. Many of the residents in these states are likely to have their conceptions of democracy shaped by traditional social hierarchies, patron-client networks, and social media in ways that the simple Western liberal model employed in this book does not consider.

While Incomplete Democracies acknowledges that democracy exists on a spectrum, it implicitly assumes correct answers to the survey questions—making interpretation of the data a challenge. One example serves to illustrate. To test whether respondents understood the meaning of democracy, the survey asked, which of the following countries in Asia are democratic: India, Indonesia, Myanmar, North Korea, People’s Republic of China, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam? The authors then divided respondents into two categories: “knowledgeable” and “incorrect and do not know.” The book implicitly argues that the “correct” answer to that question is that India, Singapore, Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, and South Korea are democracies.

However, if a respondent states that Thailand is not democratic, is this necessarily wrong? The book’s premise itself is that Thailand’s democracy is incomplete. A “wrong” answer might indicate a more sophisticated understanding of the term democracy. A sharper definition of “democratic cognitive skills” is needed to effectively undertake the ambitious project of measuring common citizens’ attitudes toward democracy.

These methodological issues, however, do not detract completely from the wealth of insightful new data these authors present—some of which are counter-intuitive and highlights the importance of accounting for local contexts when applying theories of democracy. The rise in anti-Chinese sentiment as the indigenous middle class grew in Indonesia and Thailand is one such example. The role of societal fractures along ethnic lines indicates that the rise of the middle class in Asia has not conformed to the path taken by the middle class in the West. This book pays close attention to the political and social nuances in each country, placing a necessary spotlight on local contexts.

Yet, some readers might desire a more consistent manner of presenting data across the different chapters, so as to facilitate cross-comparisons. Each author brings a different framework to his or her particular case study. This minor quibble aside, the book will be useful to readers interested in comparing how democracy developed on the ground in different locales. The findings of this book will be immensely helpful to scholars of Indonesia, Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines in enhancing their understanding of the political attitudes of ordinary citizens.

The publication of this volume is also timely, as the states under study seem to be taking regressive steps in their democratic development. Indonesia’s House of Representatives recently removed the people’s right to choose their own district heads through a legislative bill known commonly by its acronym RUU Pilkada. In Thailand, the military regularly intervenes to depose elected candidates it does not favor; earlier this year, the military pulled off its 12th coup d’état since 1932.

There is an urgent need to understand and arrest this regression. This book has the potential to contribute to that end, but does not quite reach its potential. It offers persuasive evidence that modernization theory and its affiliated cause-and-effect postulates demand revision; however, the authors present no coherent alternative path to democratization. Readers seeking broader theoretical conclusions would need to challenge themselves—sifting through the useful data to put the puzzle together. This book, then, may be seen as a step forward in constructing a truly global theory of political modernization. The data and insights from this volume may enable others to take many more such steps in the future.

About the Author

Faizah Zakaria is a PhD candidate in history at Yale University. Her research focuses on the social evolution of Southeast Asian communities and their multiple identities. She has an MA in Southeast Asian studies from the National University of Singapore.

[1] See Herbert Feith, The Decline of Constitutional Democracy in Indonesia, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1962)

[2] For example, see Adam Prezworski and Fernando Limongi, “Modernization: Theories and Facts”, World Politics, 49 (January 1997), 155-183 where the authors argue that economic development might help with the establishment of a democracy but not with its long run sustainability.

[3] See Harry J. Benda, “Democracy in Indonesia,” Journal of Asian Studies 23:3 (May 1964), 448-554.


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