International IDEA’s latest Global State of Democracy report found something somewhat unexpected about democratic trends in Asia and the Pacific: the broad democratic decline of recent years across the region had mostly come to a halt. This does not mean that the trend has reversed. The overlapping crises of inflation, high sovereign debt levels, and climate change, which continue to pressure democracies across the region and have been popularly dubbed a “polycrisis” does not appear to be abating anytime soon.
With this in mind, what can Asia’s democracies and democratizers do to finally turn the tide?
One approach would be to try less to predict the course of future events and instead to envision possible alternative futures that help us to approach contemporary problems in novel ways. This is the goal of foresight, an umbrella term for forward-thinking methods of strategic planning and finding solutions to pressing problems.
How can we be better prepared for the changing nature and duration of international and domestic migration in the Anthropocene? How might social norms and biases shape the trajectory of gender justice and democracy in the years to come? In short, what should we do about what might happen? How do we prepare for a future that is hazy, out of focus, and may seem to be many things at once?
A Post-U.N. World
In assembling this year’s report, we began with a search for signals – novel, discrete events that could offer glimpses of the future. Could African Union admission to the G20, the expansion of BRICS, and Indonesia’s attempts to build a “nickel OPEC” be the first signs of a post-United Nations world? Regional forums like the QUAD, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) could begin to take precedence over the 77-year-old institution for negotiating legal and diplomatic norms, and the everyday business of international politics could move towards forums built around a shared commodity production (the European Union began, of course, as an agreement to remove coal and steel tariffs) or even between non-state actors connected by key global supply chains.
A move away from a truly international political system could foresee a further entrenchment in policy and politics of the “West versus the rest” narrative that dismisses human rights and liberal democracy as a Western construct. But as Asia has robust and proud precolonial and indigenous democratic traditions to draw from, it could also foretell efforts to rhetorically ground these principles more firmly in local and indigenous traditions. In the face of weakening international institutions, democrats in the region can build new coalitions and instruments to defend civil and political liberties and rights. Just as Western governments embedded the liberal principles of the era in post-World War II international institutions, Asian democracies should seek to ensure developing forums that can ensure respect for minority rights, principles of gender equality, and public control of decision-making are embedded in new ones.
Who Is a Citizen?
These shifting international norms will also have consequences for how countries across the region understand and legislate citizenship. As people move more frequently and reside abroad for long periods of time, collective understandings of political communities may shift both across nation-states and become increasingly localized. Such moves are already visible from the top-down in the spread of special economic zones and other socioeconomic forces that create de jure and de facto variegated levels of citizenship, residence, and rights across the region.
Can Asian democracies survive or remain democratic if the terms of citizenship become increasingly unequal, of if equality of citizenship is preserved at the expense of creating increasingly large populations of non-citizen residents? Does sustainable democracy instead entail something akin to mandatory citizenship for immigrants? Should states work to move beyond the citizen/non-citizen dichotomy in favor of a broader and more encompassing denizenship that brings the transnational social contract undergirding regional economies out into the open?
For some countries this question is particularly acute. In late 2022, the Pacific Island nation of Tuvalu began constructing an online record of itself to preserve a memory of the country before it is overcome by climate change. By last month, the project had created a digital version of Te Afualiku Islet, the first Tuvaluan island set to disappear under rising seas. For both island countries and rural communities that see their livelihoods made impossible by environmental degradation, real civic engagement in the public sphere may soon become possible only through virtual institutions. Will Tuvaluans and other peoples displaced by climate change, war, and political persecution be able to preserve their culture and collective political identity through online political institutions?
Recent years have seen issues of women’s, transgender, and abortion rights as well as the issue of gender-based violence move up the political agenda across Asia and the Pacific. Some countries have taken steps towards legalizing same-sex marriage and decriminalizing same-sex relations, while others have struggled to come to terms with the scale of gender-based violence. Pakistani courtrooms see a back-and-forth struggle over transgender rights.
But an absence of cross-institutional collaboration – both between and within countries – mean that steps forward in gender equality are taken on shaky ground. Judicial advancements alone, without the support of broad-based political and social movements, do nothing to prevent reactionary leaders from undermining judicial independence and enshrining patriarchal norms in law, as Kyrgyzstan did this year.
As climate-induced migration puts more people at risk of gender-based violence (GBV), the region could potentially see efforts to fight GBV discourse diminished by, for example, anti-migrant politicians who group migrant communities and gender mainstreaming interventions together as a part of a universal threat to “traditional values.” Countries experiencing the worst effects of climate change and migrant communities might similarly suffer from a lack of political will or the capacity to proactively combat GBV, giving space for traditional, patriarchal, and conservative forces to gain political precedence. This violence can be truly endemic. To take one example, the majority of Rohingya women and girls in the refugee camps in southeastern Bangladesh “have experienced Gender-Based Violence (GBV) and sexual abuse from their husbands, family members, neighbors as well as members of criminal gangs.”
The ageing crisis in East Asia similarly risks seeing a return or reinforcement of traditional gender norms, encapsulated in Xi Jinping’s recent remarks about cultivating women’s childbearing role. In open political systems, pushback against gender equality from right-wing populists goes hand-in-hand with attacks on democracy and the rule of law, meaning what starts with attacks on marginalized communities rarely ends there in the absence of countervailing forces.
It is worth restating that this attempt at foresight does not aim to forecast or predict but to envision alternative futures. Activists could successfully build on the decision of Pakistan’s Sindh province to allow reserved seats for transgender persons in local councils, catalyzing the formation of political parties dedicated to advancing transgender rights, akin to Australia’s Queensland Labor Party establishing a minimum quota of 5 per cent in winnable seats for LGBTQ persons in its party rules. The ageing crisis could also provide an opportunity for countries in the region to boost women’s workforce participation whilst also reimagining more equitable care economies. For democrats, avoiding a dystopian gender backlash is one of building on incremental successes and understanding the ways in which social crises overlap.
It is by working through and with the implications of these futures that we can make better strategic decisions and shape the future. Our forthcoming report represents part of International IDEA’s modest effort to help institutions and governments more adequately prepare for a future that is hazy, out of focus, and may seem to be many things at once.
This article is derived from International IDEA’s report “Democracy in Asia and the Pacific Outlook 2024,” forthcoming in December 2023.