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Saturday, Nov. 17, 2007

Is the democracy image losing its glow?


BALI, Indonesia — There's no guarantee that an intellectual counter-revolution will last any longer than a major monsoon. But there is in the works in this region growing disenchantment with the views of what one might call democracy fundamentalists. These are the people who insist that the democratic form of government is universally applicable, morally necessary in all instances and must be applied as soon as possible.

As an American, I was born and raised as a democracy fundamentalist. The notion that a democracy could be dysfunctional and that another form of governance could provide far better for the needs of the people was not in my civic vocabulary. But travel can do wonders to attenuate intellectual provincialism.

Here in Southeast Asia, perhaps especially, quiet doubts about democracy's universal salience continue to grow.

"In today's Indonesia," claims Tanri Abeng, the publisher of the monthly business magazine GloveAsia, "democracy can be argued to have been successfully implemented, yet more and more people complain, 'It was better under Suharto.' "

General Suharto was this country's last ruling authoritarian. Since the fall of his decades-long regime in 1998, Indonesia has been proud to show the world three successive peacefully elected presidents. The current one is Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, elected in 2004.

There is, in fact, some nostalgia for the strong-willed Suharto over the statesman-like style of Yudhoyono.

Comments Tanri Abeng: "For business, it is not the system of government that is the essential ingredient. What is required is sensible macroeconomic management, a transparent regulatory system and the correct support from government in developing a public infrastructure to support growth."

Most businessmen almost everywhere, to be sure, will make peace with almost any form of government as long as it's good for profits and the bottom line. They tend not to shed a whole lot of tears over the finer points of political life, such as human rights standards and constitutional protections.

Because business leaders produce wealth — and jobs, and economic growth — they have considerable credibility with many people, sometimes more credibility than the democratic politicians.

Of course, not all authoritarians have credibility with the business sector. For instance, the ruling junta in Burma (also called Myanmar) has little credibility with anyone. The generals there have mastered the not-so-fine art of authoritarianism, but have miserably failed Economics 101. They have taken an economy rich in resources and human potential and driven a stake through its heart and its gross national product.

But the best answer to authoritarians who are incompetents may not be democrats who are incompetents. Both neighboring Singapore and Malaysia have been run for decades by strong one-party political systems, with impressive economic development to show for it.

Here in Bali, the growingly intense issue of democracy and elections was at the center of a major international meeting. The 40th World Annual Conference of the International Association of Political Consultants tackled serious business this week. The core membership of the IAPC consists of campaign managers, political consultants and election experts from all over — in countries where elections and democracy exist.

Their stake in the outcome of the current intellectual counter-revolution over democracy fundamentalism is obviously great. Many of the participants are gifted and well-known professionals in the business and practice of elections. If the idea of democracy and the need for elections declines, they know they could become as outmoded and irrelevant as a typewriter salesmen at a computer convention.

There is a very long distance to go before that might happen, of course. But it's fitting that the first major speaker at this IAPC conference was Indonesia's President Yudhoyono. The former general, whose term extends until 2009, received the organization's "Democracy Medal," addressed the delegates and submitted to a press conference.

Authoritarians often do not bother with press conferences; indeed, authoritarian regimes sometimes find the news media nothing more than a silly nuisance. Elected politicians have no choice but to face the media music, so press conferences are a gold star for the practice of democracy.

But in this region of the world, at least, there may be fewer of them if the political systems that require them fail to produce real-world goods: jobs and economic security, for starters. And it is not just for the businessmen that this requirement is increasingly the bottom line of political legitimacy. Most people want this, too.

UCLA professor Tom Plate, a journalist and Burkle Center board member, participated at the the International Association of Political Consultants conference. Copyright 2007 Tom Plate


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