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 Global Perspective

May 13, 2004
Vol. 2, No. 6

global perspective
Gemma Tulud Cruz, a lay educator from the Philippines, is a doctoral student in feminist theology at the University of Nijmegen, the Netherlands. Her e-mail address is



In the Philippines during the oppressive martial law years (1972-1986) under Ferdinand Marcos, one popular satirical definition of democracy referred to "a government 'buy' the people, 'off' the people and 'fool' the people."

Asia goes to the polls

By Gemma Tulud Cruz

NIJMEGEN, The Netherlands -- As I write this on an Easter Sunday, the polls open for the first time in my home country's embassy (the Philippines) in The Hague for voting opportunities for migrant Filipinos like me.

As you read this, vote counting has just begun. Election results will be announced in a couple weeks.

I am not the only Asian visiting the polls and my country is not the only Asian country with a major election this year. The news from India today is of a surprising upset for the Indian National Congress.

As a matter of fact, major elections dominate the political landscape of Asia in 2004. From Iran and Uzbekistan to Indonesia and Taiwan, Mongolia and South Korea to Malaysia and Sri Lanka, eligible voters from up to 14 nation-states and independent territories will decide who will fill their country's presidencies, senates and parliaments. Close to 1.2 billion Asians are going to the polls this year.

So what does this mean for Asians? What could this possibly mean for the rest of the world?

For one, this year's elections will be unique and special for some countries. For Afghanistan, which was -- and still is -- the subject of international concern before Iraq, the presidential and parliamentary elections in June are chief components in efforts to build a post-Taliban nation. Indonesia, which has the world's largest Muslim population, will hold its first-ever direct vote for president. Looking at the election process and results of some of the countries that have completed their elections could give us some food for thought.

Iran, which held its parliamentary elections last February, saw the overwhelming victory of hard-line Islamic conservatives over reformist politicians. But tension blemished the pre-election proceedings when about 2,400 reformist politicians were banned by hard-line clerics from running. The reformist politicians then tried to stage a nationwide boycott of the elections but failed. Nevertheless, the elections had the lowest voter turnout since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.

Taiwan's March elections were also marred with protests and tensions. Violence, particularly through the assassination attempt on the contested presidential winner Chen Shui-bian, tainted it. But it was closely followed by the international community in view of mainland China's threat to bring back its "prodigal province" by force as pro-independence sentiments stoked by Chen grew stronger.

Malaysia's parliamentary elections, meanwhile, saw the landslide victory of the moderate and progressive Muslim party of the ruling National Front government led by Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. This resounding victory which is tantamount to the rejection of Islamic fundamentalism and/or radicalism is deemed globally significant since it is expected to have an impact in the Muslim world where Malaysia enjoys a status as one of the few modern and successful Muslim nations.

Sri Lanka's election, on the other hand, mirrored its deepening political crisis rooted in the bitter infighting within the country's political elites. Its results also became a cause of international concern. The United National Front of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who had signed a ceasefire with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and pressed ahead with talks on a power-sharing deal based on limited autonomy for the island's North and East, ended up with a minority position in the parliament. With this, the efforts to end the country's 20-year civil war is feared to be back on square one especially since President Chandrika Kumaratunga's party, which formed an alliance with the Sinhala party Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna -- a party not in full agreement with the involvement of Norway in the current peace process -- won the majority of the parliament seats.

So, where lies now the challenge for us Asians? Where does the rest of the world figure in all of these?

Asia is the largest and most diverse continent. It is the birthplace of all the world's major religions and yet it has been home to some of the most corrupt leaders the world has ever known. It has some of the world's most dynamic and fastest growing economies but it also has more than half of the world's poor. Moreover, it continues to be a flashpoint: the site of some of the world's major conflicts and a breeding ground for one of the world's most dangerous ideologies, namely terrorism.

Asia, indeed, is a continent that is forged on religious vision but impaired by conflicts and contradictions. And these conflicts and contradictions definitely have international implications especially in the face of global economic and cultural integration.

Asia's problems have strong links to its religions, politics and economics. Of these three, politics is a strategic link. Asia's ills are deeply entrenched in it, in the first place. The politicization and exploitation of religion and the maneuverings for greater power and affluence by a number of its leaders is at the heart of the tragedy of Asia. Many are the times, indeed, when Asians are left to choose the "lesser evil" among politicians even when many Asian countries profess to have embraced democratic principles.

In the Philippines during the oppressive martial law years (1972-1986) under Ferdinand Marcos, one popular satirical definition of democracy referred to "a government 'buy' the people, 'off' the people and 'fool' the people." In 1986, the first People Power Revolution removed Marcos from power. It was triggered by fraudulent elections.

I am not suggesting that we always have to resort to the "parliament of the streets." But inasmuch as it is true that many Asian countries are still reeling from past -- and a few present -- leaders who epitomize selfishness and not service and are still laboring under colonial legacies and "global" imperialist influences, the Asian electorate faces a daunting challenge.

The point is that the people, or the electorate, are the key players in elections. They make the crucial decisions that allow change to happen. Until the voting populace seriously claim and exercise the right to vote, choose competent and principled leaders, and see to it that their votes are correctly counted, they miss the chance in doing their share in bringing to life the vision inherent in all Asian religions: the well-being of every person.

Editor's Note: For more information on Asia's elections, visit Asia Pacific Election Watch.

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