'Democratic backsliding' takes root
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'Democratic backsliding' takes root

State of SE Asian governance debated

KUALA LUMPUR - As Thailand transitions towards a democracy, it is critical to keep in mind that not only the elections but the government itself must meet citizens' expectations for leadership, security and socioeconomic development, a democratic expert said.

Yves Leterme, secretary-general of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), said at an event yesterday that democratic governance is the only tenable way to run the country in the long term, but even with an elected government, failure to deliver the electorate’s needs can lead to public discontent.

In Thailand’s case, Mr Leterme, the former prime minister of Belgium, said that demonstrating a clear intention to reinstall democracy through electoral processes is a positive step for the country.

The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), formed on May 22, 2014, has repeatedly said that Thais can expect a general election to be held late next year.

Pro-democracy activists yesterday addressed the trend of "democratic backsliding" seen across Southeast Asia, questioning if democracy still functioned in the region.

Democracy is facing challenges on several levels globally, said Mr Leterme. He said that these included growing discontent with politics, disengagement of the electorate and support for undemocratic governance.

Several countries in Southeast Asia are seeing obstacles to democracy in the form of corruption, armed violence, social and economic inequalities, and insecurity. These can lead to popular unrest and in some cases nationalist, religious or ethnic tensions and increasing radicalisation, Mr Leterme said.

Other speakers at the event included former Indonesian president Haji Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Malaysian senator Datuk Paul Low Seng Kuan, who agreed that new information technology and social media can be threatening when they encourage the rise of fake news, undermining the ideals of a democratic media.

They added that populism is a double-edged sword and can be harmful when politicians see it as a shortcut to gaining popularity and political victory.

Both Mr Yudhoyono and Mr Low denied that democracies in their respective nations are backsliding. Mr Yudhoyono said a military coup scenario in Indonesia is "unimaginable" and the military has already pledged its devotion to national reform efforts.

He credited this to the strength of civil society and people's faith in democracy.

“We strengthened the parliament," he said. "We solidified the checks and balances. We made sure no politician was stronger than the institution. We enacted the same rule of law for all. We executed elections regularly every five years. As a result, the Indonesian democracy today is stronger than ever."

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