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Democratic Transitions: Narrated by the Elite
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There is an argument that the common thread in failed attempts of Southeast Asian nations to attain quality democracies, is that democracy is a Western concept, and Southeast Asian cultures are not suited for such systems. Unfortunately, leaders of these countries do not only purport this argument to justify authoritarianism, but their regimes reveal that democracy goes beyond culture, and exists independently of it. Democracy is separate from national cultural constructions; it is a fight for inalienable liberties and freedoms, a fight against political enslavement, and a system designed to restore power to the masses that truly hold the sovereign power.

The manifestation of a democratic system, whose guiding principles are equality, and a wide distribution of power, has, arguably, never existed perfectly. However, in a comparative analysis, it is evident that some government systems have been more successful than others in their pursuit of this ideal. In Southeast Asia, the comparative analysis of Indonesia and the Philippines reveals trends in democratic successes, illusions, and quests for power, which call on culture to justify tyranny.

Both Indonesia and the Philippines have colonial histories. After independence, both nations moved through phases of progress and regression in a back-and-forth struggle between authoritarian dictatorship and a system with greater political, economic, and social equality.

Indonesia gained its independence from Japanese colonialism in 1945, only to be handed back to the Dutch.[1] However, in 1949, the country was able to begin reconstructing its own political identity from the remnants of the colonial era.[2] Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta led the Indonesian Revolution, and Sukarno became the first Indonesian leader post-colonialism. In 1957, Sukarno wielded the doctrine of “guided democracy”, or demokrasi terpimpin, which equated to an authoritarian dictatorship.[3] Demokrasi terpimpin served as an important example of culture being exploited in a quest for arbitrary power: Sukarno argued that a controlled version of democracy was necessary in order to align a government system with Indonesian culture.[4] However, these pretenses for domination were just that: there was nothing “democratic” about Sukarno’s regime, and the argument for demokrasi terpimpin can be traced to notions of “Asian democracy” which pervades political discourse in Southeast Asia today.

A military coup in 1965 led to the end of the Sukarno regime. After horrific bloodshed during “the year of living dangerously,” one dictator would be replaced with another in 1966.  Suharto subsequently established the “New Order”, or orde baru.[5] This extension of the illusory democracy of Sukarno disguised itself with rigged elections and fake opposition parties, in order to once again deceive the Indonesian people into believing they would finally get democracy. Orde baru and Suharto would reign from 1966 to 1998 and would be defined by censorship, nepotism, corruption, murder, the erasure of political opposition, as well as massive theft from the Indonesian people - to the sum of some 800 to 900 million dollars - by the Suharto family.[6] The 1997 Southeast Asian financial crisis led to the people’s revolution and the end of Suharto, and this time Indonesia would accept nothing less that a true, quality democracy.[7] Mun’im Sirry at the University of Notre Dame explains, “...the post-Suharto weakening of state controls in nearly all areas of national life have made a more open and constructive exchange of ideas and views possible.”[8] Today, Indonesia is arguably the most true and fair democratic nation in the region.[9]

In the Philippines, democratic transition would take an even more confusing route through the exploitation of political narratives and a seemingly incurable level of corruption. The Philippines went from being a Spanish colony to a colony of The United States in 1898.[10] Ending in 1946, the American colonization would leave a confused political identity behind it, due to the U.S.’s insistence on Americanizing the nation, which is in part due to leaving behind a two-party democratic government. Those political parties - the Nacionalista and Liberal Parties - would melt into a multi-party system without any actual significance; for example, the same candidate can switch parties inconsequentially and repeatedly, because the parties themselves are insignificant in comparison to political “image”.[11]

A series of presidents during post-colonialism would inhabit an illusory notion of democracy with deep-seated corruption and elitism as its legacy until the effective dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. His regime stayed in power from 1965 to 1986.[12] Shortly after his election, Marcos began to imply that the country would benefit from  lifetime dictatorship, rather than free and fair elections.[13] Once again, culture would be the excuse for authoritarianism: Marcos rationalized anti-democratic rhetoric by way of “Philippino Culture.”[14] Marcos, much like Indonesian dictators, murdered any political opposition and put an end to civil society. In 1986, revolution would give way to a new democratic beginning in the Philippines.

Since post-authoritarianism, the Philippines and Indonesia have battled remnants of illusory culture, which have undermined their democratic transitions. Indonesia is still working to free itself from corruption, and from its ethnic and religious cultural history, which continues to thwart progress. Aaron L. Connelly of the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, explains that, current, pluralist, reformist president, Joko Widodo, has identified the following: “one of the top three problems facing the country is the degradation of state authority in a number of areas - the failure of the fight against corruption, the allowance of human rights violations and the inability to manage social conflicts…” [15]

In the Philippines, a teeter-totter between deceiving political narratives - populism and reformism - has diluted the political arena. Mark R. Thompson of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg explains that in this duplicitous political “market”, politicians - who are largely the same - represent themselves as opposing sides in order to better appeal to voters. [16]  Thompson explains Filipino “populism” as: “...an inexact, slippery and impressionistic political narrative... one common feature of ‘populism’ is that ‘the people’... are contrasted with the elite… This does not mean, however, that ‘populism’ actually involves the rule of the people. Leading ‘populist’ politicians in the Philippines have been elites…”[17] Reformism follows an “I am good” narrative, rather than the populist “I will help you” appeal, and does not emphasize class.[18] Since both parties use the same systems of corruption and exploitation, the people of Indonesia are, therefore, manipulated by campaign narratives and experience the same outcomes after elections. At this point, economic inequality in the country is staggering, censorship and political coercion are constant, and “rido politics”, or mafia-like political families, rule the government. In fact, because of the pseudo-democratic systems, which are more similar to a militarized oligarchy, a certain political nostalgia, or nostalgia for totalitarianism, can be observed in the recent election of Rodrigo Duterte.

While political experts cite culture as an impediment to successful democratic transition, in the case of Southeast Asia, this excuse serves as a mask for the brutal exploitation of defenseless citizens. Suharto and Marcos suggested that the cultures of their nations were not compatible with democracy. These illusions served to excuse the exploitation and domination of their people, and to hold power. Rather than the Philippines or Indonesia, possessing cultural aversions to democratic freedom, both countries have long histories of rising up and fighting in the pursuit of democracy; both histories contain many courageous rebellions.

When culture is used to discuss the politics of social value systems, popular culture, or morality, then perhaps some proposals might have depth and weight. However, when politicians (or political scientists) attest that people have cultural predispositions to servitude, this is simply preposterous. In the case of, both Indonesia and the Philippines, difficulties in democratic transitions have been rooted solely in despotic leadership. A struggle for true democracy has continued in spite of entrusted public servants abusing their power and sacrificing their own people for private gain. This is accomplished with political manipulation, outright force, or both. In Indonesia, this is expressed most significantly in elitist corruption of the political systems, and cultural narratives about religion and race, which serve that same corruption. In the Philippines, the faux-choice system of populism and reformism mask the undermining of democratic processes, and further cronyism, elitism, and political oppression.

In order to assess the difficulty of a democratic transition, it is only necessary to evaluate to what extent the elite can be successful in exploiting the newly established system. In order for the transition to be one of ease, a socio-economic elite must be deprived of its ability to rob the people of democracy.

Sam Brooks is a senior at the University of California, Berkeley. They intend to graduate with a major in political science concentrating in political theory, and they will go on to pursue a doctorate in political theory. Sam hopes to apply critical theories of politics, race, queerness, and gender to social institutions in order to combat oppression and enable folks to thrive. Sam was recently appointed the Operations Director Fellow at the Young Women's Freedom Center of San Francisco, a leadership organization which facilitates formerly-incarcerated young women of color changing juvenile incarceration policy. Sam is the founder and former president of the community group, Sober Long Beach, and currently volunteers in drug and alcohol recovery in the Bay Area.



Connelly, Aaron L. "Sovereignty and the Sea: President Joko Widodo’s Foreign Policy Challenges." Contemporary Southeast Asia 37, no. 1 (2015): 1. doi:10.1355/cs37-1a.

Sirry, Mun'im. "Fatwas and Their Controversy: The Case of the Council of Indonesian Ulama (MUI)." Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 44, no. 01 (12, 2012): 100-17. doi:10.1017/s0022463412000641.

Thompson, Mark R. "Populism and the Revival of Reform: Competing Political Narratives in the Philippines." Contemporary Southeast Asia 32, no. 1 (04 2010): 1-28. doi:10.1355/cs32-1a.

Zook, Darren C. "Becoming Indonesia: Revolution, Independence, and the Elusive Search for Democracy." Lecture, Politics of Southeast Asia, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, October 5, 2016.

Zook, Darren C. "Political Drama Like No Other: The Philippines." Lecture, Politics of Southeast Asia, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, October 19, 2016.



                [1] Darren Zook, Lecture 10/05/16.

                [2] Ibidem.

                [3] Ibidem.

                [4] Ibidem.

                [5] Ibidem.

                [6] Ibidem.

                [7] Ibidem.

                [8] Mun’im Sirry, “Fatwas and their controversy”, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 44 (2013): 116.

                [9] Darren Zook, Lecture 10/05/16.

                [10] Idem., Lecture 10/19/16.

                [11] Ibidem.

                [12] Ibidem.

                [13] Ibidem.

                [14] Ibidem.

                [15] Aaron L. Connelly, “Joko Widodo’s Foreign Policy Changes”, Contemporary Southeast Asia 37 (2015): 6.

                [16] Mark R. Thompson, “Populism and the Revival of Reform”, Contemporary Southeast Asia 32 (2010): 7.

                [17] Idem., 6.

                [18] Idem., 7.

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