Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa: Lost in Transition

  • Book Title:
 Comparative Political Transitions
  • Book Author:
James M. DorseyTeresita Cruz-del Rosario
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Political transitions are always messy affairs. When regimes change and a new leadership comes to power, large-scale shifts in expectations occur. Almost always, the expectations outpace the ability of the new regimes to meet them. And almost always, when these expectations are dashed, another transition occurs, perhaps with more chaos, volatility, and even violence.

Where regimes endure in spite of, or because of, popular demand for change, a political reconfiguration follows suit, whether through changes in policy, or through institutional redesign. Constitutions are (re) written, bureaucracies revamped, state institutions overhauled, opposition groups (re)emerge, new political groups and actors enter the scene, old ones redefine their roles vis-à-vis the new regime in a bid for political sur- vival, or exit the stage altogether.

Regimes that survive popular upheavals readjust their strategies, hoping to prevent regime-wide changes. Despite these efforts, however, transitions do still occur, sometimes toward the direction of more political repression to stymie the efforts and aspirations of the population, or toward a gradual liberalization of the political space to manage and control the pace and outcome of change.

Transitions are “critical junctures … major watersheds in political life that establish certain directions of change and foreclose others in a way that shapes politics for years to come.”1 They are critical because of the void left in the aftermath of regime collapse, and therefore, the void has to be filled immediately with new or surviving political actors.

Or, threatened with collapse, struggling regimes have to respond quickly to the impending crisis, and thus, avert the polarization of forces that could lead to civil war.

Where civil war has erupted, the transition has become protractedly slow and painful, causing massive dislocations and human suffering while political forces engage in a battle to dismember the old regime and redraw the lines of yet-to-be-formed nation state(s).

It is during these critical moments of transition that politics are reborn and powerful stakeholders compete for control of the political space.2 For purposes of this book, political transitions are defined as “period(s) of significant change which typically occurs in different countries (or in other units of analysis) … to produce distinct legacies.”

 These legacies are a result of a crisis or cleavages that have accumulated and become apparent from “antecedent conditions”3 that have been festering over long periods of time, but have lain unrecognized and unattended to. At the moment when crisis erupts and these prior conditions are exposed, the transition occurs as an inevitable process.

The Southeast Asian region in the decade of the 1980s and 1990s was a certainly far cry from the Arab world in 2011. Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Thailand experienced their critical moments of transition, but with very different outcomes.

Indonesia and the Philippines are today functioning (though flawed) liberal democra- cies. Myanmar continues on an admittedly shaky path toward democratic reform while Thailand has had a major relapse, with a return to authoritarianism and ended nearly two decades of democracy when two mili- tary coups in September 2006 and May 2014 deposed two duly elected heads of state.

Cambodia remains democratic since the UN-supervised elections in 1993, but its current trend leaves much anxiety as it slips and slides toward authoritarianism. Malaysia and Singapore are exceptional cases. Their critical junctures occurred in the mid-1960s, when strong state institutions were created in the aftermath of Singapore’s separation from the Malayan Federation.

Singapore has been variously referred to as an “illiberal democracy,” an “administrative state,” or a “networked autocracy” whose socio-economic performance has yet to be matched by any other country in the region. In studying transition processes and out- comes, Singapore remains an illustrative case of success, notwithstanding that its status as an authoritarian regime departs from the normative ideal of transition to liberal democracy.

 The Malaysian state is still dominated by a single party, which has ruled Malaysia since independence in 1957. As of this writing, the country is embroiled in a leadership crisis as civil society organizations have been clamoring for the ouster of Prime Minister Najib Razak over allegations of corruption. Whether these mobilizations will result in regime change and usher a transition period for Malaysia remains to be seen.

In contrast, the countries gripped by the Arab Spring fever in 2011 find themselves in the midst of chaotic and uncontrollable transitions. The ouster of Mohammed Morsi in July 2013 signaled a worrisome return to military-backed rule.

The proliferation of private militias in Libya indicates the absence of institutions upon which effective governance rests. Civil strife in Syria shows no signs of abatement as the country heads toward dismemberment. Yemen is a mess, as interregional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran somewhat mirrors the Syrian situation in which polarizing forces threaten to rip the country apart.

 Ethnic and sectarian violence in Iraq has produced the rise of jihadism in the form of the Islamic State that controls a swath of Iraq and Syria, threatens the stability of other countries in the region, and has sparked renewed foreign intervention.

The protests in Beirut, Iraq, and Egypt in August 2015 have centered around issues of corruption and the demand for better social services, inaugurating a pos- sibly new era of mobilization focused exclusively on domestic, rather than on sectarian, concerns.

Why the stark differences between and among countries in these two regions? How did countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines achieve social and political stability after decades of internal strife, whereas Thailand and Egypt reverted to authoritarian rule after brief democratic interludes?

Why did Tunisia succeed in its transition, whereas most Arab countries gripped by the Arab Spring fever did not?

These questions underlie this research project and investigate the broad theme of “global transitions” that has been the subject of much interest in the academe, as well as in policymaking circles.

Throughout the book, political transition remains the overriding unifying theme across both regions despite their inter- and intra-regional differences. To account for these differences, this study proposes three major factors:

  • an early tradition of civil society organizations (CSO) in a number of Asian countries—notably, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, and Indonesia—whose resurgence at critical junctures provided a social base for developing and sustaining broad coalitions of opposition groups. In contrast, the capacity of authoritarian governments in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region to adjust their autocracies as well as to regulate and control the environment in which civil society operates resulted in a constriction of political space for CSOs;
  • the lack of a reform-minded faction in the Thai and MENA militaries whose narrowly-based allegiances, either to regimes or to particu- lar social groups, prevented the formation of anti-regime coalition forces. In Southeast Asia, particularly the Philippines and Indonesia, segments of the military defected from the regime and aligned them- selves openly with pro-democracy opposition forces;
  • differences in economic and social policies that affirm the co-equal status of ethnic groups as in Malaysia and Singapore, and potentially in Myanmar, and a successful though limited peace framework in the Philippines between the Christian north and the Muslim south. In contrast, countries of the MENA region are riveted by ethnic and sec- tarian cleavages that have become evident in the distribution of public and private goods, giving rise to deep-seated discontent and hostility.

Though there are surely other equally compelling factors to account for the differences in transition processes and outcomes, those mentioned above are the most salient. The book omits the role of social media sim- ply because the technological apparatuses in the 1980s and 1990s were very different from those in 2010 (radio, television, fax, and cellphone in Southeast Asia;

Facebook and Twitter in 2010). Beyond differences in communication technologies, however, are profound differences in forms of “cyber-activism” that emerged in the digital era of the twenty-first cen- tury and figured nowhere in the imaginations of twentieth-century activists.

 It was neighborhood mobilizations responding to Radio Veritas, the Catholic-owned radio broadcasting network, that mobilized the protes- tors to head toward the military camp to protect the defecting soldiers and officers of the Philippine armed forces in 1986. Indonesian president Suharto’s resignation in 1998 was broadcast live via national television, with CNN broadcasting the same event to a transnational viewing public.

 A generation of Filipino activists rolled out manifestos from Gestetner machines in the decade of the 1970s, in dire contrast to the uploaded video of al-Bouazizi’s self-immolation in 2010 that spread across Tunisia and throughout the region, causing a transregional conflagration and gave birth to the Arab Spring.

The Twitter and Facebook generation of Egyptian activists, armed with tablets and cellphones, helped expand and maintain Tahrir Square.

Social media activism has a dynamic all its own, and any attempt at comparison with Southeast Asia would be clumsy and artificial, if not problematic. The role of political parties is, likewise, excluded, for the obvious reason that the history of party formation and the levels of institutionalization in both regions are far too uneven to merit any meaningful comparison.

Political parties are nowhere to be found in the Gulf countries, given the excessively familistic, tribal, and confessional character of many of these regimes. Political parties in Southeast Asia are too diverse among themselves. One-party states in Malaysia and Singapore are hardly comparable with the multiparty states of Indonesia and the Philippines.

Thailand’s switch-on-switch-off democracy is reflected in its party formation processes. Further, Thailand’s political parties must be viewed through the lens of an all-powerful monarchy and Privy Council supported by the royalist military forces that can override the electoral victories of party candidates. Except for Brunei and Thailand, monarchies have long been absent in Southeast Asia, and therefore, do not constitute a major factor in political change.

 Again, with Brunei and Thailand as exceptions, single families do not dominate Southeast Asian families as in the Middle East (for example, the Saudis of Saudi Arabia, the al-Thanis of Qatar, the Maktouns of Dubai). Even for countries such as the Philippines, where an entrenched oligarchy is spread out over several families and clans competing for political control, new ones emerge with the rise of political and economic fortunes, displacing the older ones and competing with surviving political clans.

For example, the Estrada and Binay families are relatively new, the old Osmena and Durano clans are hardly mentioned, while the Aquino-Cojuangco and Roxas-Araneta clans, both related to one another through intermarriages, continue to flourish. Finally, the role of external agents, particularly the aspiring regional hegemons in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia and Iran) is a critical difference, a situation that is wholly absent in Southeast Asia.

In admitting to these omissions, the book admits that every comparative study is necessarily limited. The three factors deemed critical to the transition process were treated as comprehensively as possible to offset the aforementioned limitations.

Each of these factors is elaborated in the succeeding chapters, to make a convincing case that these are indispens- able to any transition process. By limiting the scope of this study, the book hopes to have gained in depth. Finally, Brunei, Laos, and Vietnam are excluded. While these countries did undergo significant economic trans- formations, they are not at critical junctures.

In large measure, one could argue, that by prioritizing the economic transition process, these countries have managed to avoid the onset of political transition, or maybe, postponed it temporarily. This remains speculative, but could be a fertile topic of research, for which ample possibilities remain for the future.

The book’s comparative perspective between two regions are significant insofar as cross-regional comparisons have been conspicuously absent in the literature. There are more recent attempts to do cross-national and cross-regional comparisons, yet these have been focused elsewhere.4

State– society relations in Southeast Asia and the MENA region have not been comparatively studied, but these constitute a fertile area of scholarly interest, given the recent experience of political change. This book attempts to address that gap.

It makes a contribution to the study of two complex and diverse regions, indicating differences in specific areas and pointing out significant contrasts in countries that are undergoing social transformation. Mindful of the diversity and differences among countries in both regions, the goal of this study is to highlight regional comparisons that could potentially pave the way for future detailed investigations and chart new territories for research along specific dimensions.

This may include comparative colonial experiences; contrasting development processes and outcomes; (im)balance of social forces such as the military, the middle classes, ethnic groups, regional powers, and religious agents/actors versus secular ones.

No doubt, the book will be beneficial for scholars, researchers, and educators who wish to employ a comparative perspective for their academic work, rather than focusing on singular units of analysis.


Several authors have expressed pessimism over Southeast Asia’s record since a “third wave of democratization”5 swept the region during the decades of the 1980s and 1990s.

Erik Paul’s Obstacles to Democratization in Southeast Asia is a detailed litany of the “repressive and undemocratic” features of all countries belonging to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a regional agglomeration of ten nation states.6 Gripped….

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