Clock running out for some key Asian reformers


TOKYO — Voters in the Philippines appear to have delivered a resounding victory to President Benigno Aquino in midterm elections. The son of former President Corazon Aquino looks set to control both houses of Congress, giving him a mandate to continue his reform policies. His biggest worry now is making them stick.

In the first half of his six-year term, Aquino arrested his predecessor on corruption charges, faced down the business lobby to pass revenue-raising taxes on cigarettes and liquor, and challenged the powerful Catholic Church by providing free contraceptives to slow population growth. His payoff: investment-grade credit scores for the first time, the support of almost three-quarters of the electorate and even a place on Time magazine’s list of 100 most influential people.

It may seem odd, then, that with three years left in his term, some pundits are already calling Aquino a lame duck. Rivals know the president can’t run again; all that Aquino has accomplished could easily be undone by a successor more interested in self-enrichment than good governance. He not only needs to push forward with his reforms now, while he has a popular tailwind, but also must make sure that his foes can’t easily roll them back once he’s gone.

Several nations that used to be among Asia’s most troubled are about to confront similar end-of-tenure dramas. Take Indonesia and Myanmar, where former generals have presided over incredible transitions to democracy. In both geopolitically vital nations, the trajectory remains fragile and uncertain. Gains could easily be reversed by corrupt or simply ineffective successors.

In Jakarta, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has righted a nation that many feared would collapse into post-Soviet-style chaos after the fall of former dictator Suharto. Taking over in 2004 after a string of ineffectual post-crisis leaders, Yudhoyono surrounded himself with competent deputies, modernized the economy, reduced terrorism, rolled back the military’s role in society and attacked epic levels of corruption.

Yet Yudhoyono, who must step down next year, has only just introduced a plan to spend $125 billion on infrastructure by 2025. The opportunities for corruption are immense — almost an invitation for a successor to return to the days of crony capitalism.

The challenge in Myanmar is somewhat different. Former general Thein Sein has presided over a stunning transformation in just the last two years, opening up a country that was once almost as closed as North Korea. Now, Ford is establishing showrooms in Yangon and companies are angling for a piece of Myanmar’s 64 million-person consumer market. The Davos set will gather in the capital Naypyidaw next month for a summit heralding Myanmar’s re-entry into the global economy.

Yet Thein Sein has said he won’t run in presidential elections scheduled for 2015. Instead the charismatic Aung San Suu Kyi, whom the former general freed from her long house arrest, may seek the presidency. She’s almost certain to win if she does.

No one knows how the Nobel laureate will do as a national leader. There’s broad recognition that Myanmar’s military must work for the country, not the other way around. But will the generals take marching orders from their one-time political prisoner? Moves to further liberalize basic freedoms — not to mention to open up the economy — could well provoke stiffer resistance if they come from Suu Kyi than from one of their own.

All of these Asian leaders face the same problem: how to ensure that reforms outlive their tenure. One way is to leverage their popularity, as Aquino has done. If voters are sold on the benefits to be had from a more efficient economy, they will police the government at the ballot box. Just as important is forging a consensus among business leaders in favor of economic and political progress and creating independent judiciaries and other institutions.

At the same time, focusing too much on individual personalities has traditionally been part of the problem in Asia. Current leaders need to groom a crop of potential successors who share their ideals and integrity. That means remaking political parties, too, so that they’re not personal vehicles but truly meritocratic organizations. The allies that Aquino helped elect to the Philippines Senate are considered serious, reformist lawmakers, not yes men. They’ll be judged less on their personal loyalty to Aquino than their ability to sustain progressive policies.

These are, in one sense, enviable problems to face. In the past, Asian voters had to worry far more about how to get rid of wayward leaders, whether dictators like Suharto in Indonesia, entrenched and overly dominant parties like the Liberal Democratic Party in Japan, or allegedly corrupt executives like Aquino’s predecessor Gloria Arroyo in the Philippines. The fact that many countries are now fretting about losing good leaders is a sign of maturity.

The next step is to detach these issues from individuals and to cement the constituency for change across the population. That’s the campaign these lame ducks need to wage next.

William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist.