My old friend and colleague Kevin Fogg recently mused about how many pro-democracy figures in Southeast Asia have proven to be disappointing in office, whereas so many anti-democratic figures are proving to be very important for liberalizing movements in the region. Think of Mahathir Mohamad—Malaysia’s long time authoritarian ruler—now advocating for political liberalization; think of Aung San Suu Kyi—Nobel Peace Laureate and former political prisoner—who remains silent on issues of grave import in Burma.
His post asks some interesting questions, but I think it reflects a common belief that the views of individual elites are central to understanding the essence of a country’s politics. There are lots of people who demand reform and openness in Malaysia, but when Mahathir does, this clearly changes the game. This belief in turn draws on a common view that the problem of political reform is getting the right people with the right beliefs in office. That is why it is so disappointing when someone like Aung San Suu Kyi fails to live up to her reputation once in office, and why it is so important for so many to ask whether Mahathir has “really” had a change of heart.
From my perspective, though, it is useful to remember decades of research in comparative politics has argued that the character of a political regime is not a function of the views of its elites. There is no consensus that mass democratic values cause democracy (although the literature examining this proposition continues to develop), and there is hardly any rigorous evidence that democracy emerges because liberals or democrats come to power. My own preferred interpretation, one widely shared in the literature since O’Donnell and Schmitter, is that democracy is an equilibrium, the outcome of struggles among individuals and factions, none of whom may actually value democracy but who may nevertheless find themselves overseeing a democratic regime because no one faction can defeat all others (one such account, by Przeworski, is here).
Under such a perspective, it might be nice to know if Mahathir has had a change of heart, but it does not actually matter. He may drag Malaysia towards a more open politics because he favors openness, or because he detests Najib this is the only way to unseat him, or for any other reason. Likewise, Aung San Suu Kyi may have benefited from a moment of openness in the late 2000s, but the course of political change in Burma must not be reduced to her own voice. Much like oligarchy is not the politics of oligarchs, democracy is not rule by democrats. Keeping this in mind may indeed give those who favor greater political openness in Burma, Malaysia, and beyond cause for optimism.