Authors: Don S Lee, Sungkyunkwan University and Fernando Casal Bertoa, University of Nottingham

History has shaped party politics and electoral instability in Asian democracies. History remains an essential factor in understanding how the young Asian democracies can be strengthened and stabilized in the future.

Our research on Determinants of Electoral Instability in 19 Asian Democracies found that restricted electoral competition during the pre-democratic period distorted the formation of free and fair electoral environments after the democratic transition process. But not all authoritarian regimes are the same. The negative impact of authoritarian legacies on the development of the democratic party system depends on the extent to which they disrupt political development after the transition.

In countries like South Korea, where strong authoritarian parties existed, the same parties tend to reappear after the transition. Voters will already have a certain attachment to it and the level of electoral instability is lower. On the other hand, in countries where parties have functioned simply as an electoral vehicle for authoritarian rulers or military cliques, voters are likely to change their partisan preferences from one election to another, or to be coerced into to consider a new political option, as artificially created. parties tend to collapse.

Electoral volatility is lower in countries where political parties could participate in free elections, even if they are not always fair, or play a monopolistic ideological role, including in countries like Japan and Taiwan. Countries where political parties existed as a functional service of a dictator or a ruling military clique experience endemic electoral instability, including in countries like the Philippines and Thailand.

The story works in other mysterious ways as well. Colonial pasts and the different degrees of political freedom they imply also have an impact on how post-colonial political parties develop. In particular, the British imperial legacy had a more positive impact on stabilizing post-colonial electorates than other colonial legacies.

The British colonies benefited from a higher level of voter turnout and political activism, and also inherited majority institutions, including Westminster parliamentarism and single-member electoral rules. This helped the former British colonies forge stable party systems and achieve democratic consolidation at a fairly early stage.

We find that former British colonies like India, as well as other Asian countries freed from colonialism like Japan, have shown greater electoral stability than non-British colonies. An important caveat is that the more recently democratized non-British colonies, including Indonesia and Timor-Leste, tend to see greater electoral stability the further removed they are from their colonial past.

This does not necessarily mean that the future of Asian democracies is already on the dice of history. Behind the shadow of the authoritarian past lies hope, provided post-transitional leaders manage to maintain democracy as “the only game in town”. The routinization of political behavior generated by years and years of democratic experience is capable of erasing even the worst authoritarian legacy. This is certainly good news for some young Asian democracies who can look forward to a better democratic future despite years of authoritarianism.

Even with the potential to embrace a democratic future, the road to democracy is not straightforward and democratic retreat remains a constant threat. The political leaders of countries like India, the Philippines and Kyrgyzstan may have already restarted the clock by jeopardizing not only democracy but the stability of party politics in the near future.

The future of electoral politics and democracy in the region depends on political leaders and their willingness to rewrite the mistakes of their authoritarian past. As shown in one of the most famous film series of the 20th century, ‘the future has not been written […] there is no destiny except what we do‘.

Don S. Lee is Assistant Professor at Sungkyunkwan University, South Korea.

Fernando Casal Bertoa is Associate Professor at the University of Nottingham, UK.


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