Revolts are only the first step: Learning from the experiences of Southeast Asia

By Roberto Herrera-Lim

Protestors depose an authoritarian leader. Crowds revel in the streets. Optimism is high. What we just saw in Egypt happened in the Philippines in 1986, when strongman Ferdinand Marcos was ushered out, and in Indonesia in 1998, after the ouster of former president Suharto. But years after shaking off their autocrats, both countries remain stifled by vested interests and corruption, and progress will continue to be glacial.

Last week, around the same time that the Internet activist Wael Ghonim was reinvigorating Egypt's protesters, a former Philippine defense secretary apparently shot himself, fatally, in the chest. The retired general was embroiled in a scandal involving kickbacks and alleged golden parachutes. Such turbulence is nothing new for the Philippines. Since 1986 the country has produced at least half a dozen coup attempts. Claims of election fraud and shady deal-making have been common and destabilizing.

In Indonesia, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's reform efforts are stymied by fierce battles with Suharto-era politicians such as Aburizal Bakrie, one of the country's richest men and the leader of the opposition Golkar party. Yudhoyono lost his credible finance minister, Sri Mulyani Indrawati, after Golkar wrongly accused her of complicity in a supposedly mishandled bank bailout.

Both countries are better off than they were under despots. There is more freedom, and economic growth has enlarged their middle classes. But the sense of lost opportunity is palpable. The revolts that shook the Filipino and Indonesian political systems sidestepped and maybe even reinvigorated powerful economic and bureaucratic interests. After Marcos was forced out, new president Corazon Aquino simply gave the businesses that Marcos had seized back to her allies. And anyone attending the country's first senate session in 1987 might have done a double-take: The old but now wrinkled pre-Marcos oligarchy had returned. In Indonesia, the dynamics were essentially the same, although of the more recent Golkar vintage.

Growth and reform have come painfully slowly as a result. Investors complain of all types of corruption, from petty payoffs to interference in major deals, and citizens sometimes question whether the fight was worth it. In 2003, I met with Jose Almonte, a retired Filipino general who had participated in the revolt against Marcos and staunchly believed that the country should have a more level playing field. I asked him what unfinished reforms kept the country unstable, the military politicized, and economic growth uneven. He replied, "Too many to count."

Many Filipinos are frustrated with their country's incomplete transformation, but maybe there is hope. Computerized elections in 2010 significantly reduced questions about legitimacy. While President Benigno Aquino III is unlikely to target vested interests directly, his aim of improving regulation and tackling corruption could ultimately lead to stronger democratic institutions. In Indonesia, meanwhile, the battle between Yudhoyono and Golkar will intensify before the 2014 elections, limiting the scope for substantive policymaking. The real promise is after the elections, if Golkar's power diminishes and Yudhoyono's anti-corruption and reform programs take root. Then the last vestiges of Suharto's reign might finally take their bow.

Roberto Herrera-Lim is a Director in the Eurasia Group's Asia practice.

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