Magazine

The State of Democracy in Asia

Has the global narrative of democratic decline held true in the Indo-Pacific region?

By Yun-han Chu, Michael Vatikiotis, Mosharraf Zaidi, and Catherine Putz for
The State of Democracy in Asia

A voter wearing plastic gloves to help protect against the spread of the new coronavirus casts a vote for the parliamentary election at a polling station in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, April 15, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon

In November 2020, all eyes are on the United States as it concludes a contentious presidential election. Donald Trump’s original victory in the 2016 presidential polls fed into a growing wave of despair about democracy’s decline around the world: the growth of populism and majoritarianism among politicians coupled with increasingly illiberal and nationalist sentiments in the general public across the world.

This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated some of those trends, especially amid the economic chaos resulting from lockdowns and shutdowns around the world. In our cover story, we examine the current health of democracy in our four main coverage regions: East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, and Central Asia. Which countries are backsliding, and which are avoiding a democratic decline?

Around the world, COVID-19 has tested democracies and accelerated trends toward populism and authoritarianism. In East Asia, however, things are playing out much differently. China and North Korea, of course, remain one-party states with little room for free expression, much less political choice. But the region’s democracies have bucked global trends by handling COVID-19 capably and keeping their economies afloat – and, in the process, bolstering their public’s faith in democratic systems.

Democracy has had an enduring but troubled relationship with Southeast Asia. After a passionate courtship at the end of the colonial era, there were long periods of argument and estrangement. Then, starting about 20 years ago, there was a reunion and some reconciliation. However, the past few years have seen old enmities resurface and democracy is now undoubtedly under pressure across the region.

In South Asia, the notion of democracy has continued to slide into an existential crisis of majoritarianism that was supposed to have been resolved during the overthrow of the British Raj and the winning of independence in 1947. South Asia’s biggest countries are in conflict with each other and with themselves, perpetuating the Orientalist zeal with which the region is described by foreigners, and pouring cold water over the dreams of a South Asian century shared by many peaceniks in the region.

Democracy has never been alive and well in Central Asia. If 2020 dimmed the shine of democracy in many corners of the world, in Central Asia the light was never truly plugged in. Amid a tumultuous 2020, with a pandemic and ensuing economic upheaval, democracy in Central Asia is as it ever was: mostly a masquerade.

Read more on each region in our full cover story for this month’s Diplomat Magazine.