Asia politics: Democracy in Asia: a clash of communities

Content Type
Country Data and Maps
Economist Intelligence Unit
No abstract is available.
Politics, News Analysis
Political Geography
Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar

In The Economist Intelligence Unit's latest Democracy Index, the score for Asia and Australasia falls from a peak of 5.74 in 2016 to 5.63 in 2017, the region's worst performance in six years. Two themes drove the score changes. First, rising communal tensions have set back the environment for democracy in some countries. Second, the US government's more transactional approach to international relations under the presidency of Donald Trump has weakened the pressure on the region's governments to adhere to democratic norms. In this article, we analyse the first theme.

In recent years Asia's emerging democracies have move towards the frontier of "full democracy", but in 2017 the environment for democracy in the region as a whole experienced a setback. The two most prominent under-performers were India and Indonesia, the region's largest democracies in terms of population. India's score fell from 7.81 in 2016 to 7.23 in 2017, and Indonesia's dropped from 6.97 to 6.39. As such, out of the 28 countries in the region that are covered by the index, India placed sixth (down from fifth in 2016), while Indonesia was ranked 12th (down from eighth). Both these emerging economic powerhouses experienced a backlash against minority groups. Communal tensions also rose in Myanmar, which saw a decline in its score to 3.83 in the 2017 index, from 4.20 previously.

Protection of minority rights, respect for basic human rights (including freedom of religion) and a culture of political pluralism are essential for the functioning of a healthy democracy. The rise in communal strains thus puts pressure on one of the key pillars of support for a democratic system of governance. If unaddressed, such social friction tends to result in increased political instability, which would pose a further challenge to democratic institutions.

The dominant majority

The impact of rising communal strains in the emerging democracies of Asia has manifested in different areas of our scoring within the Democracy Index. For Muslim-majority Indonesia, this has been reflected in its poor score for electoral process and pluralism. The tumultuous gubernatorial election for the country's capital, Jakarta, eventually saw the defeat of an ethnic-Chinese, Christian candidate, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (known as Ahok), and his incarceration under the charge of blasphemy against Islam. This highlighted significant structural problems in the archipelago's democratic institutions. In the election's aftermath, Indonesia did not suffer as much in terms of social cohesion, although this could have easily been eroded at a time when an obvious representative of two minority groups had been subject to attacks by Islamist groups. (The country's political culture score was thus stable in 2017.) Moreover, criticism from Islamists was not the only reason that Ahok lost. However, we believe that at the institutional level, the prospects for egalitarian representation of minority groups in senior political offices have diminished in the wake of the election.

By contrast, both India and Myanmar experienced drops in their scores for political culture and civil liberties. As a country at an early stage of developing its democratic institutions, Myanmar's problem with the Rohingya community has much to do with a long-standing issue of identity. Many in Myanmar do not view the Rohingya as Burmese citizens, and there has been broad support for the military's crackdown against them within both the electorate and the government. The depth of this support shows that the culture for the protection of human rights, civil liberties and minority groups remains very underdeveloped in Myanmar. This is an important reason why it is still rated as an "authoritarian regime" in our Democracy Index, despite the fact that general elections were held in 2015.

Pandering to caste and faith

India offers another variation on this theme. India has conducted free and fair elections for nearly 70 years, many more than most emerging markets, and continues to score very highly in terms of electoral process and pluralism. However, the political system in its current form incentivises parties to pander to blocks of voters, such as castes and ethnic and religious minorities. The Bharatiya Janata Party (which controls India's ruling National Democratic Alliance coalition) has achieved great electoral success by pursuing an overtly pro-Hindu agenda that has sidelined the concerns of minority religions. Together with associated organisations, it has been accused by its critics of fanning religious tensions. Over the past year rising communal tensions have manifested in many cases of violent street protests and vigilantism. Threats against detractors of the current government, particularly in the press, have also risen. Together, this has negatively affected India's scores in the political culture and civil liberties categories of the Democracy Index.

Fraught elections ahead

Looking ahead, it seems unlikely that the escalation in communal tensions across Asia in 2017 will ease in 2018. Rising tensions will be fuelled by the increased use of social media by ethnic and religious chauvinist groups emboldened to target a larger audience. The same sort of tensions seen in Indonesia and India are likely to be notable in Malaysia and Sri Lanka this year, as we expect both countries to go to the polls in elections that will be partly defined by ethnic tensions. Moreover, with elections due in both India and Indonesia in 2019, politicking and campaigns designed to attract the majority communities in those countries are more likely to intensify than weaken. Identity politics will also remain a lasting theme for Myanmar, whose new political establishment is still trying to build democratic institutions. The retreat to narrow identity politics in such countries will continue to pose challenges for the health of democracy in Asia.

Data provided by: