Across Asia, Regimes Loosen

Subversive political effects of market capitalism prod governments in the region to become more responsive.

Old ways of doing business aren't the only traditions breaking up in Asia these days. The whip of financial crisis has cracked open Asian politics, as well - perhaps presaging a historic shift towards openness in a region long known for less-than-democratic rule.

This doesn't mean that US-style elections, with campaign buttons, squabbling candidates, and two opposing parties, are about to become the model from Jakarta to Beijing. Partisan gridlock (sound familiar?) in fact made economic problems worse in some semi-free Asian nations, experts say.

It does mean that more governments in Asia may now become more responsive to average citizens. The lesson national leaders have perhaps learned is that people in the street must have confidence in their government if they are to take the millions of individual actions necessary to patch a shattered economy together again.

"Political institution building has to go hand in hand with economic development," says Muthiah Alagappa, director of the East-West Center for the Study of Politics and Security, in Honolulu. "Though it will vary from country to country, Asian political systems may now change, and become more competitive, and more participatory."

Indonesia is the most obvious example of this nascent trend. President Suharto found that after 32 years in office he was almost powerless against the subversive political effects of market capitalism.

The corrupt, crony capitalism practiced under Suharto's leadership wasn't flexible enough, or successful enough, to deal with the demands of globalization. So impersonal financial traders and the IMF helped accomplish what guerrilla opponents with guns could not. They ousted Suharto from office - although the scope and nature of reforms to be carried out by Suharto's hand-picked successor, B.J. Habibie, remain to be seen.

But Indonesia isn't the only Asian nation to change leaders in mid-economic stream. The Asian financial crisis has also helped usher in a new leader in Thailand, and in South Korea.

The mere fact that longtime dissident Kim Dae Jung could be elected South Korean president shows how far politics in the region has come. A longtime critic of the cozy Asian system of crony ties between government and corporations, he was marked for assassination by previous South Korean leaders.

Economic problems have also hurt Japan's prime minister, Ryutaro Hashimoto, and left him struggling to hang on to office. They also played a role in China's appointment of technocrat Zhu Rongji as prime minister.

Hong Kong may present the most interesting, and most fateful, clash between a movement toward openness and so-called "Asian values" of authoritarian, yet capitalist, rule. Democracy advocates were barred from legislative office by Chinese leaders when they took control over the former British colony 11 months ago. But on May 25, in the first election under communist rule, more than 60 percent of Hong Kong residents who voted opted for pro-democracy candidates.

"Asian values have been twisted by Asian leaders interested in power," said lawyer Martin Lee, the leader of the democracy forces, in a post-election interview. "But if I say to you, if you give me an American, a European, or an Asian, they all want to be free."

Donald K. Emmerson, a University of Wisconsin political scientist, has attempted to statistically test the assertion that lack of democracy correlated with Asian economic failure.

Writing in the journal Foreign Affairs, Professor Emmerson rates Asian nations for their freedom, then correlates that number with the percentage change in that country's stock market since March, 1997. His conclusion: That pattern is suggestive.

"Other things being equal, the economies best able to withstand the present crisis may prove to have been those with more political freedom," he writes.

Capitalism turns out to be a system that may carry the seeds of destruction for any authoritarian government that attempts to implement it, some experts say. It opens nations to untold sources of outside influence, from the Internet to foreign bank loans. To function effectively, it demands the rule of law. It also nurtures a middle class that demands more of a say in their politics as they become more prosperous.

"Economic development creates new social and political forces," says Muthiah Alagappa of the East-West Center.

Yet the course of democratization is unlikely to be smooth. Thailand is a classic example: it has lurched unevenly towards more openness for decades, as military rule alternates with elected governments, some of which have been marked by corruption and incompetence.

Singapore's Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, a longtime "Asian values" exponent, has said it is not democracy per se that has protected some nations against Asia's economic crisis, but simply good governance of the economy.

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