Vote for peace in Asia

If it’s true, as U.S. presidents and others have maintained, that democracies don’t go to war with each other, then Taiwan and the Philippines will find another way out of their nasty quarrel over a military attack on a fishing boat in contested waters. It was front-page news around the South China Sea before a calm set in.

I’ll bet they steady things for other reasons, mostly that interrupting Asia’s peace and prosperity would be bad for both. The Philippines has been growing smartly of late, one reason that President Noynoy Aquino just won voter reaffirmation in the election of allied senators. Taiwan’s president, Ma Ying-jeou, by contrast, is unpopular as his economy struggles, and citizens want a lift. Maybe that’s the point, though: The ballot box keeps a leader focused on results for the mass public.

This works imperfectly. Just as democracies can be fractious, as Taiwan’s surely is, or plagued by violence, as parts of the Philippines are, so too does the voter leash sometimes pull too tight, preventing officials from taking unpopular short-run steps that would yield longer-term payoff. But with decent rule of law and a civil society, an election can ventilate and renew.

We’d like to think that what took place in May in Pakistan–setting the stage for a democratic handover of power–heralds better times there. Constituents turned out strongly in most places although threats from the antidemocratic Taliban had their effect. The idea of having a say is powerful, even if the systems are flawed. (Recall that what was thought to be a staged election in Burma actually was the start of whatever reform is taking place under Thein Sein?) Manipulations of the popular will can lead to frustration, as arguably happened, also in May, in Malaysia. The opposition to PM Najib Razak’s government drew a majority of votes but was left short of seats. Subsequent protests brought charges under a musty sedition law. To go back to the initial point: It’s likely to be in the interest of the Malaysian economy that the electorate feels respected.

Thailand has settled down under an elected Yingluck Shinawatra even if some of her populist policies are silly and the guiding force of her party, brother Thaksin, remains a lightning rod. Indonesia shuffles along toward better administration, at least no longer in doubt that regular votes will be declarative. India will keep arguing internally and its entrepreneurs can decide whether to wait out the politicians or go elsewhere—but enterprise is safely part of the national hodgepodge.

Add all of those rough edges to the relative polish of democratic change in Japan, South Korea and Australia, and you have a region that basically is prospering all the while it yields to shifting mass mandates. The outliers are small or special cases and, well, one very big case: China. How that nation is going to coexist with, let alone lead, a politically boisterous lot in Asia-Pacific is the great question that looms over the recent blaring headlines.

Source: Forbes

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