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Research Questions

  1. Why do some Asian states consolidate democratic gains while others slide toward authoritarianism?
  2. What policies can support democratic consolidation?
  3. Can external actors help?

In Asia over the past decade, democratization has been uneven. Asia is the only world region for which democracy scores have improved over the past two decades. However, as shown by the illiberal trend in recent years in many countries of South and Southeast Asia, including those that are long-established democracies, democracy remains fragile.

Why do some Asian states consolidate democratic gains while others slide toward authoritarianism? In this report, RAND researchers study democratization and the factors that influence it among small Asian states, identify policies that can support democratization, and examine how external actors can help countries democratize. They follow a three-stage approach: (1) a literature review to identify global and Asian trends in democratization and to identify factors that might influence it; (2) a statistical analysis to discover the factors that are statistically significant for Asia relative to global factors; and (3) interview-based case studies of four Asian states — Taiwan, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Malaysia — at different stages of democratization.

Key Findings

  • Globally and in Asia, there has been a reduction in the number of autocracies and a rise in the number of partial democracies. The latter trend is due to the retention of some autocratic institutions among new democracies and backsliding among previously liberal democracies.
  • Several factors that are significantly associated with democratization globally also apply to Asia: gross domestic product per capita, urbanization, human capital, civil society participation, women's political empowerment, independence of the judiciary and subfederal units, and corruption.
  • Income inequality, voter turnout, and quality of government, although significantly associated with democratization globally, are not significantly associated with democratization in Asia.
  • External alliances are significant for Asia but are not globally significant.
  • Transitions to conditions of both greater democracy and less democracy can occur without disruption to a country's normal political process.
  • Democratization can face significant hurdles: Economic growth can be used to legitimize authoritarian rule, and ethnic diversity, a hallmark of the typical Asian state, can hurt democratization.
  • Voter participation tends to be high regardless of the state of democracy.
  • Media freedom is closely related to the state of democracy.
  • Civil society organizations flourish during periods of democratization, but their depth and resilience do not seem to be related to the state of democracy.
  • The judiciary is invariably important.
  • External actors are usually marginal players in a country's democratization and are more effective when their role is noncoercive.
  • Membership in regional and international institutions has not helped with democratization.

Recommendations

  • The governments of fragile democracies should, during democratic upturns, seek to embed into law and practice the features that promote democratization. These include regular elections, investment in human capital, legal changes to empower women and the strengthening of civil society, the independence of the judiciary and subfederal units, the freedom of the media, and the tackling of corruption.
  • During democratic downturns, civil society should use grassroots movements and legal activism to ensure that as many pro-democracy features as were in practice during the prior democratic period are protected.
  • Sympathetic external actors that are full democracies should prioritize "soft" areas — such as strengthening civil society and freedom of the media and promoting women's empowerment — rather than offer defense and diplomatic support, if they wish to help other countries democratize.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    Literature Review

  • Chapter Three

    Democratization in the Data

  • Chapter Four

    Case Studies

  • Chapter Five

    Discussion and Conclusions

  • Appendix A

    Summary of Findings from the Literature

  • Appendix B

    Data and Model

This research was sponsored by the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Los Angeles and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

This report is part of the RAND Corporation Research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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