Asia's Fickle Elites

If recent Asian history shows one thing, it's that attempts to save democracy by uprooting it don't work.

Gen. Musharraf's coup, in 1999, was initially welcomed by Pakistanis tired of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's (another-tycoon-turned politician) greed and mismanagement. In Manila two years later, the Georgetown-educated Gloria Arroyo rallied "people power" -- in fact, a powerful coalition of generals, priests, judges and businessmen -- to oust the louche and lecherous (but wildly popular) Joseph Estrada. In both cases, the marginal gains in quality of governance have not been worth the long-term price of political retardation.

For democracy to mature in Asia, elites will have to accept that, in the long term, the game is worth playing, even if it means that, in the short term, you lose. How widely this lesson is internalized by generals, media barons and urban intellectuals across the region will determine whether Tuesday's coup is merely a blip or a sign that, in Southeast Asia, as in the Middle East, democracy will likely remain a delicate transplant for the foreseeable future.

Sadanand Dhume, a former correspondent of the Far Eastern Economic Review and The Asian Wall Street Journal, is a Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society.

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