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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

OCTOBER 22, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 42

main pakistan indonesia india malaysia People's Will?
Coalitions, caucuses, even a coup - democracy in Asia is getting more complicated and messy. Are the people's demands still getting through?

A Pakistan army general fired by the elected prime minister. Indonesian political parties haggling over presidential votes. An Indian leader with a new election mandate - facing the same stubborn, old problems. A Malaysian strongman wondering when to snap his fingers and let his 7 million voting compatriots decide his fate by ticking off names on pieces of paper. Last week all of these figures pondered the will and welfare of their people (at least, they were supposed to do). Then most moved, hoping that their countrymen and women would approve or at least acquiesce.

Thus, democracy, on the march mostly triumphantly across Asia for more than a dozen years, struggled with one of its toughest times of test. Will the people's will win - or wither in the winds of personal and party ambition? In New Delhi, 605 million Indian voters seemed to have their way as Prime Minister-Re-elect Atal Bihari Vajpayee, leader of the Hindu rightist Bharatiya Janata Party, proceeded to form a coalition which he hopes will last longer than its 13-month predecessor. But across the border in Islamabad, the voters appear to have lost their constitutionally elected leader, Nawaz Sharif, detained in a nighttime coup on Oct. 12 by troops loyal to General Pervez Musharraf, the armed forces chief of staff and army commander whom the PM had fired just hours before.

Special Report: People's Will?
Coalitions, caucuses, even a coup - democracy in Asia is getting more complicated and messy. Are the people's demands still getting through?

Pakistan: Here We Go Again After grabbing power for the fifth time in 52 years, Pakistan's generals may put in place a civilian government sooner rather than later

Timeline The ups and downs of Pakistan's recent history

Indonesia Win or lose, B.J. Habibie stands in the shadows

Malaysia Speculation continues over the election date

Precedent Can Anwar run for Parliament from Prison?

India Will the new government survive?

Into Thin Air How to sell a candidate

Vajpayee The Indian PM remains beholden to his Hindu nationalist benefactors. Yet increasingly he is being his own man

Viewpoint India elected an old PM with new friends

Daily Briefing: A Coup in Pakistan

Breaking news from South Asia

Interactive profile of key players

On the Ropes
Sectarian violence added to Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif's list of woes (10/18/99)

Can't Stop the Madness
With the downing of a Pakistani military aircraft, familiar accusations fly between New Delhi and Islamabad over who provoked the latest round of tensions on the subcontinent (8/23/99)

In Jakarta, too, the will of a nation hangs in the balance, as 500 elected MPs and 200 other members of the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR by its Indonesian initials) prepare for the final act of a three-week drama in which the MPR chair and the parliamentary speaker were chosen, to be followed by the country's president on Oct. 20. In a key caucus last week, the ruling Golkar organization of President B.J. Habibie chose him as its candidate for the final race, despite the public's growing disenchantment with his government, particularly over East Timor and alleged corruption.

Also facing criticism and unrest, but looking quite secure is Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who continued to keep the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, opposition parties and the rest of the nation guessing when he will put his performance to the electoral test. Economic recovery has helped Mahathir's position, but his chief rival, former deputy PM Anwar Ibrahim, still enjoys popular sympathy for his ouster, arrest, trial and imprisonment. Moreover, many find common cause with Anwar's call for major political reform, delivered all over the country by opposition groups, including the Parti Keadilan Nasional headed by his wife. The big question: When will Malaysians get to have their say?

Plainly, if you're looking for the simplicity of one-person-one-vote majority rule to distill the people's wishes, you will be disappointed, if not dispirited. Why, they may protest, didn't top MPR and parliament posts go to leading presidential contender Megawati Sukarnoputri's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), which won the most seats and votes in the June parliamentary elections? As for Pakistan's ousted PM Nawaz Sharif, he himself took out the president and the Supreme Court chief justice in 1997, and has emasculated the press and the opposition. Is that how a democratic leader should act?

Maybe not, but democracy is not always pretty. After the initial euphoria over winning freedoms and choices long denied, newly liberated nations soon settle into the horse-trading, big-money, rough-and-tumble tactics of representative politics. From rich landlords and merchants to intellectuals and workers, interest groups contend for their share of national power and wealth. The process is invariably messy, the outcome often unfair and never perfect for any group. The bruising tactics include some pretty nasty stuff: threats and inducements to the press; politically driven graft cases against oppositionists. Alliances of convenience bring together once-incompatible groups like, in Malaysia, the Islamic Pas, ethnic Chinese-based DAP, and Malay-dominated Keadilan.

So is the people's will losing out as democracies get more complicated to accommodate a broad spectrum of interests and ideas? It does not have to. There is no reason why Megawati's PDI-P, for instance, could not have forged ties with other parties to ensure her supporters' voices are loudly heard in parliament and assembly. Even the coup in Pakistan, while definitely not the preferred procedure for top-level change, may yet win the people's support - still the key criterion for democratic rule - if it eventually leads to elections and better government.

If the people's voice is drowned out in the corridors of power, there is always the street, the broadsheet - and the Internet. Anwar in jail can be heard (or downloaded) across the world, itself an increasingly important constituency. In time, anyone aiming to stay in power has to serve the people's priorities. And topping the agenda in most of Asia - as Vajpayee has acknowledged with his new reform thrust - it's still the economy, stupid.

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home


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