Unrest Plagues Many of Asia's Young Democracies

Even as China and Burma have struggled recently to rebuild from the Sichuan earthquake and Cyclone Nargis, disasters have struck a number of other Asian states. But these are shocks of the man-made kind.

The countries in question, which include some of Asia's strongest economies, have suffered enormous street protests, parliamentary meltdowns, threats of military intervention and other forms of bare-knuckled politics. In South Korea, tens of thousands of angry demonstrators have paraded nightly through Seoul—the biggest protests in two decades—demanding the ouster of the new president, Lee Myung-Bak.

Thailand has been racked by similar spasms, including massive marches and a parliamentary vote to censure Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, which he only barely survived. Taiwan's legislature broke into another of its famous melees in late June when screaming opposition M.P.s tried to physically block the foreign minister from speaking. And in India, talks on the U.S. nuclear deal collapsed yet again thanks to the obstruction of communist parties.

In most of these cases, democratic excesses have undermined the national interest. In South Korea, for example, President Lee is pushing free-trade deals on a nation that has benefited hugely from globalization. And for India, the nuclear deal offers access to U.S. technology and virtually free membership in the club of nuclear-armed nations. Yet such goals are slipping away in states that are supposed to rank among the most successful democracies in the non-Western world. South Korea, Taiwan and India are often praised for their freewheeling public debates, broad press freedoms, expanding civil liberties and strong economic performances.

So what explains the breakdowns? While there are individual factors at work, the struggles share some underlying common causes. First is a lack of democratic maturity. It's crucial to remember that in South Korea and Taiwan, democracy is barely 20 years old; in Thailand it's about 35, and even in India it's only 60. Habits formed under earlier periods of military or authoritarian rule die hard. Traditions of corrupt, highly personal, big-man-dominated, winner-take-all politics persist, turning every political skirmish into a struggle for survival.

There are already signs that the unrest is dying down—Taiwan is nowhere near as fractious as it used to be, and the Korean protests are slowing, with Lee's standing inching up. Short of another coup in Thailand, the prime minister and the constitutional order will also likely survive. But the underlying forces that allow, even encourage, protest to paralyze reform in these nations remain. And that's bad news at a time when spiraling food and energy costs and a global economic slowdown make decisive action more important than ever.

On the surface, none of these crises had much to do with profound questions of democracy. The Korean blowup started with a food fight. Protests first broke out in April after President Lee decided to resume U.S. beef imports after a four-year ban. Exaggerated media accounts of mad-cow disease drove ordinary citizens, including many high-school students, onto the streets for orderly candlelight protest vigils. But the students were soon overshadowed by agitators from a variety of left-wing civic groups, including aggressive trade unions, who jumped on the cause as an excuse to protest the rest of Lee's agenda, which stresses improved ties with Washington and spending cuts.

A similar escalation occurred in Thailand. The protests started in May over economic concerns and expanded to include nationalist complaints over a border dispute with Cambodia. But these issues were proxies for a deeper struggle between supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra, the ousted populist prime minister, and his opponents, who include monarchists, the military and others who see Thaksin's emphasis on rural and working-class empowerment as destabilizing. Thaksin's opponents are now trying to force his ally Samak out of office, and calling for less democracy: they've even pushed plans to lower the number of elected seats in Parliament and have hinted darkly that another coup, like the one that forced Thaksin from power in September 2006, may be needed. "The campaign is much wider than the street protests," says Chris Baker, a Bangkok-based author of numerous books on Thai politics. "The point is to push Thaksin and his supporters to the back burner." Sunai Phasuk, a consultant with Human Rights Watch, says that the opposition "have a right to demonstrate, but calling for military intervention [and] inciting violence is irresponsible."

The Thai and South Korean protests started out responsibly—that is, within the political process. Korea held presidential elections in December and a parliamentary vote in April, both of which Lee swept by huge margins. Thaksin's proxy party won the Thai election in December. Since then, however, the losers have refused to take no for an answer, turning to spoiler tactics to get their way.

Even in India, often touted as the world's largest and one of its more stable democracies, vicious illegal tactics remain common. Parliament is so chaotic that the well-respected speaker of the lower house, Somnath Chatterjee, recently threatened to quit, screaming on camera that the opposition was "working overtime to finish democracy in the country." Disgruntled activists regularly stage crippling national strikes—often enforced by club-wielding thugs. They attack government property like buses and trains, and, in the case of Singh's coalition partners, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), do all they can to slow the working of government in order to press their own narrow agendas.

These campaigns expose the extent to which Asian democracies are still twisted by authoritarian traditions. Larry Diamond, a foremost democracy expert at Stanford University, traces the protest ringleaders in Korea to "a radical anti-American, left-wing generation that grew up during the 1980s in the resistance to military rule … and has now reached positions of leadership in civil society, the media and elsewhere." Today they use the same hardball tactics they honed against dictators to undermine democratic leaders. In Taiwan, the impulse to follow "an undemocratic path to pull someone down" comes naturally to a society with "a long tradition of rule by humans, rather than rule of law," says Prof. Liao Da-chi of National Sun Yat-sen University in Kaohsiung. In Thailand, everyone is familiar with military coups, and behaves accordingly. Even Thaksin's supporters show what Diamond calls a "willingness to violate the spirit of democracy."

Asian leaders also fear retribution if they lose elections, which can inspire desperate measures. Prof. Kim Hyong Joon of Seoul's Myongji University calls this "the politics of the vortex." Two of South Korea's last five presidents were criminally prosecuted by their successors, and President Roh Moo Hyun was impeached just a year after winning office in 2003. In February, when Lee became the first conservative president in a decade, he moved quickly to overturn many liberal accomplishments. The same basic pattern also holds in Thailand and in Taiwan, where prosecutors launched a corruption probe of ex-president Chen Shui-bian just hours after he stepped down in May.

Corruption actually raises the stakes in a number of ways: it makes office-holding in places like India and elsewhere extremely lucrative. That makes leaders even more reluctant to leave office graciously. Being forced into the opposition can mean a serious financial loss—as well as possible legal trouble.

Fortunately, there are recent signs that Asian voters are slowly starting to reject politics as blood sport. Roh's impeachment earned him great public sympathy in Korea, boosting his party to a parliamentary win in 2004, and a majority of voters are now turning on the current protests as well. "If political attacks become too irrational or extreme, people come to their senses," says Prof. Lee Jung Hee of Hankook University of Foreign Studies in Seoul. The president's approval rating has rebounded from single digits in early June to about 20 percent today (several apologies and a cabinet reshuffle didn't hurt). Taiwan has grown much more stable since early this decade, when opposition leaders refused to even call the then President Chen by his title, tried to oust him through street protests and claimed he'd rigged an assassination on his own life (despite a total lack of evidence). Professor Liao says those events were actually a "vaccination" that made Taiwanese democracy stronger.

The real cost of the chaos, however, is the policies these nations have had to abandon in the process. South Korea's growth rate has slipped from 7 percent in 2002 to about 4 percent this year, and it could badly have used a shot in the arm. But since the protests began, Lee has had to step away from some of his bolder reform proposals. Thailand, too, faces a stalled economy, a serious food crisis and a stark rich-poor divide—which its gridlocked government is unlikely to address. In India, while Congress has weathered a many storms, reform has also ground to a halt, and the grand nuclear deal—which could have finally vaulted India into true great-power status—seems unlikely to survive attacks from the left. Constitutions and the trappings of democracy will probably persevere, in other words, as will individual leaders, but that's cold consolation for the region's citizens, who face lean times in the months ahead.