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Who gets to be Suharto this time?

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COMMENTS

27 August 2009 15:44

Asia's great economic crisis a decade ago also remade politics across much of the region. As Asia contemplates the economic rebound, thoughts are turning to the magnitude of possible political effects this time.

The 1997-98 financial tsunami swept Suharto from power and changed Indonesia fundamentally. The crisis helped Kim Dae-jung get elected president in South Korea, introducing a sunnier approach to North Korea and a more questioning view of the US alliance. 

In Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamad clashed repeatedly with his deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, over the correct response to the crisis. It was a major moment in the simmering rivalry that was ultimately resolved by Mahathir throwing Anwar into jail. The economic devastation deeply damaged Thailand’s political old guard, opening the way for Bangkok’s own Berlusconi, Thaksin Shinawatra.

So, as the economic fires from the latest crisis start to recede, what political changes are in view? The crisis this time has certainly rattled UMNO's traditional hold on Malaysia. Power looks tantalizingly close to the Anwar-led opposition. If recovery comes roaring back, though, the UMNO machine knows how to grind out further wins. Thailand's political agony is still a series of variations on themes that have played through the decade since the previous financial crisis.

If there is to be a Suharto moment, the obvious candidate is Japan. For Japan's voters, the worst recession in memory may be the final straw. If the Liberal Democratic Party is toppled for only the second time in 50 years, that will mean this financial crisis can also be the marker for a political revolution.

The LDP's economic legitimacy has been crumbling since the early 1990s. The global recession thus ranks as both a cause and also coincidental with the final breaking of the Japanese mould. (And if the voters at the last moment hesitate to put the sword to the LDP? Well, a quick Asian rebound might be part of the reason.)

If the LDP goes down, all sorts of changes should follow. To take the Kim Dae-jung example, it could presage a more sceptical view of the US alliance. I was tempted to add in the idea of a new Japanese sunshine policy towards China, but no matter how I shake the crystal ball I can't get that vision to materialise. Breaking the mould of politics does not mean smashing the hold of history.

The LDP leader, Taro Aso, expresses the reason with unusual bluntness: 'China and Japan have hated each other for a thousand years. Why should things be any different now?' The quote is recorded in Bill Emmott’s book, Rivals, on the emerging power struggle between China, India and Japan. Aso made the comment earlier this decade, before he became Foreign Minister and now Prime Minister.

The LDP is in the frame as Asia's biggest potential loser. The biggest Asian winner is already established: China. This global crisis marks the moment when the world unequivocally recognised China’s ranking at the very top. In 1997-98, China was an Asian winner merely by standing still. Today, China is active in shaping not just the future of Asia, but the world economy. The evident sense of quiet triumph in Beijing is shaping the way Asia contemplates life beyond the gathering recovery.

Photo by Flickr user bepatou, used under a Creative Commons license.

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