I lived in Indonesia throughout the 90s. In 1997 East Asia suffered a huge financial collapse, which contributed directly to the revolution which toppled the 30+ year dictator Suharto from power. It was an abnormal revolution because it didn’t wipe the whole political system clean. It removed Suharto and his family, but kept most of the elites in place, while advocating free and unbiased elections.
Indonesia is a big mess of a country. With over 200 million people spread across thousands of islands, some in urban sprawl and some in complete rural tribes, it’s almost an impossible country to govern. It has several religions, many ethnic groups, some of whom have a strong sense of identity. For a long time strong government was necessary. Nationalism kept the country together, when it could have fragmented, and when it couldn’t, the army went in. Suharto’s rule was, compared to most dictatorships, pretty good, but not without its sins. There were secret police, disappearing of dissidents, not to mention invasion and occupation of East Timor and the human rights abuses done there and elsewhere. Some look back on his legacy with a sense of pragmatism: One way or another, Indonesia stuck together, and grew. It’s said that Suharto keenly understood that popular revolt was the greatest threat to his rule, and to that end pursued economic development as his most important contribution which was largely successful.
As a democracy, Indonesia had a rough start, but seems stable now. It’s managed to hold together despite challenges, but it still has its host of problems. Where democracy gives legitimacy and representation, it takes decisiveness and ease of action. Every four steps that Indonesia may take forward in progress and development, it can be seen to take three steps back. Ethnic groups, religious political parties, minority interests, corporations, various elite families, the military, all of them pull on the power of the government, which as a democracy has little choice but to decentralize. In fact, it looks a lot like India.
India had a lot of challenges to its authority early on, including large scale protests and even a few uprisings, but managed to survive it all while still an active democracy. India today is an economic jewel, but still very much in the rough. Its infrastructure is still horrible, it still has hundreds of millions below the poverty level, similarly bad gender imabalance in life expectancy and literacy, among a myriad of other problems. What it has done in the services industries and computer tech development doesn’t match the rest of the country. But that is the price of democracy.
China is the other end of the spectrum. Like Suharto, its leaders pursue economic development at all costs, and as a result, at breakneck speed. More than Indonesia ever had, it has a tight control over its political power, and as a result removes barriers to economic development in ways and at speeds impossible in any democracies. Want to build a new stadium, but there’s a neighbourhood of people living there? No problem! Gone in months. Before Chinese citizens can move into cities, they have to have proof that a job is waiting for them, which prevents their cities from being overcrowded with slums of unemployed people who just wander in looking for work.
Of course, China is changing, albeit in different ways. Its government officials are increasingly accountable for their actions. Nationalistic Chinese citizens often blog and complain on the Internet about shortcomings regarding say, disaster relief. Not against the overall government of the Communist party, but against the specific official.
Regardless, if we take China on one end of the spectrum, and India on the other, they’re models for developing countries which are between authoritarianism and democracy. This is a particularly important perspective regarding the potential for new Arab democracies, such as Tunisia and if Libya and Egypt truly follow suit.
When do you know if a country is ready for democracy? You don’t really. But the most important aspect must be its bureaucratic infrastructure. When Indonesia made the switch, it kept its bureaucracy. That led to a pretty smooth transition, most notably with minimal bloodshed. If/When China eventually makes the same move, it will have its infrastructure as well. Egypt, so far, has been relatively bloodless but we have yet to see if the transition will go all the way. And Libya… the fact that it led to civil war tells you all you need to know.
During Indonesia’s transition, there were a lot of moments which would have been funny if they weren’t also ridiculous. But the brightest spark has to be the first free election. Everyone at the time was worrying that it would get out of control, that there would be rioting. But there wasn’t anything like it. Indonesians lined up in a disciplined manner, and even stopped people who might have tried to disrupt the voting process. It was the best political false alarm I’ve ever seen.
To me that suggests that even when things look really bad, you never know. There’s no way to really know who’s ready for democracy, just to hope it goes well when it happens.