I’m embarrassed to admit, that, if I scan a paragraph and “korea” appears more than once or as the main subject, I have to slow down and blog about it. And, if it’s an academic – read, political science – essay, it’s instantly noteworthy. But, discussions about democratization, authoritarianism, North Korea, etc., are swirling in my head lately. It might be because expats have a compulsion to extol South Korea as a basket case-turned-successful economy and democratized former authoritarian insult to humanity, because they genuinely want to express gratitude by praising, have accepted the local narrative because no one likes to be criticized by foreigners. It might even be easier when there’s one of the world’s nastiest truly authoritarian basket cases parked across the 38th Parallel providing negative confirmation on a daily basis.
I’ve ranted that South Korea is not a real democracy, and, for the purposes of this post, I will climb down from that soapbox, and call South Korea a democracy. I’m truly trying to figure that out. So, Dan Slater and Joseph Wong argue, that “…some of the strongest authoritarian parties in the world have not resisted democratization, but have embraced it.“
In Taiwan, South Korea (hereafter Korea), and Indonesia, for example, dominant ruling parties conceded democracy without conceding power, and indeed with the confident expectation that they would not lose power. Rather than conceding and withdrawing, ruling parties in these Asian developmental states conceded and thrived.
But why, when, and how does such a “conceding-to-thrive” scenario come to pass? We contend that dominant parties can be incentivized to concede democratization from a position of exceptional strength and not only from a position of exceptional weakness. Paradoxically, the very strength that helps dominant parties sustain authoritarianism can also help motivate them to end it. Untangling this paradox of “strong-state democratization” requires that attention be paid, first and foremost, to the historical sources of strength that make this strategy viable for some party leaders and not for others. It also demands sensitivity to the proximate conditions that make a conceding-to-thrive logic more likely in some settings than in others.
Our working causal argument is conjunctural and historical, and unfolds in three steps. First, ruling parties are only likely to embark on such a risky democratization path when they possess substantial antecedent resources and marked relative strength vis-à-vis the opposition, such that they confidently expect to win fully democratic elections. Second, and in some tension to the first point, ruling parties must nonetheless receive a strong and clear signal that they are passing their apex of power and legitimacy. This signal can take the form of an economic, electoral, contentious, or geopolitical shock, or some combination thereof. Third, ruling parties must be commanded by leaders who strategically calculate that pursuing democratic reform promises to give themselves and/or their parties a more enduring means of maintaining power. In short, conceding-to-thrive scenarios require a confluence of particular strengths, signals, and strategies.
My first reaction is, that it takes two to tango. There needs to be an opposition, which North Korea demonstrably doesn’t have. North Korea and China just aren’t going to relinquish power until an opposition starts the process. When we are extolling South Korea and wondering what North Korea is doing, perhaps we should ask first how an opposition arose in the first place. I cringe when an argument praises a dominant party for its democratization strategy, because such a top-down scenario turns the opposition into a cipher. The concluding paragraph confirms my reservation.
Apologists for Asian authoritarianism have long maintained that the region is distinctly ill-suited for democracy. Our framework suggests, by stark contrast, that the developmental states of Northeast and Southeast Asia are especially well suited for democratization. Unlike regions of the world where the failure of an authoritarian regime threatens the failure of the entire state apparatus, Asia is stocked with states that are sufficiently robust to deliver good governance, whether manned by authoritarian or democratic leaderships. They are also “blessed” with moderate and conservative middle-class electorates that tend to prefer parties with solid developmental records over untested if more reformist and redistributive party challengers. Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have proven these points most emphatically. Even a country with a wobblier Leviathan that suffered a more tumultuous authoritarian exit such as Indonesia has shown that democratization in the wake of decades of rapid state-led growth tends to be marked by continuity more than upheaval in governing coalitions. The key implication is that dominant authoritarian parties can similarly change their regime type without ceasing to be the central player in the regime itself in developmental party-states such as Singapore, Malaysia, and even China.
I don’t consider myself an apologist for “Asian authoritarianism”. Quite the contrary, I don’t think the opposition has gone far enough. I am concerned about chaebols, the narrow range of the same old families hunkered down in the business and political sectors, social conservatism, and the security situation with North Korea, and then the corrupting, corrosive potential of the evolving neoliberal trading regime. Slater and Wong are making a prescription, that the dominant party can guide a state through development, when I would like to ask why an opposition didn’t do more to deepen democratization.
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