It is the continent with the biggest number of the world's rural poor, but the vast and complex region that is Asia is also considered a major center of the global economy. Home to more than 60 percent of the world's population, Asia has seen a rising number of its people grow affluent, albeit many of them in urban areas. But this change cannot but trigger major transformations in the social, cultural, and political fabrics of the nations in the region. Indeed, there are silent revolutions of traditional Asian behavior and habits going on, and as the growing middle class becomes increasingly mobile and informed, and take on fast-paced lifestyles, so too does the demand for more participation in governance become stronger and more urgent.
Some of Asia's socialist countries have already implemented a significant number of far-reaching market reforms in response to this call. As the self-confidence of Asians grows along with the pace of economic success, political leaders seem to be more willing to share power with other groups in their societies. But even financial misfortunes suffered by many countries in the region in last several years have led to dramatic political changes, including the rise of democracy.
The essence of democracy – the peaceful and smooth transfer of power and change of government – cannot yet be said to have become the norm in Asia. But it is clear that the traditional type of power politics, often with military intervention, is on the wane, while groundswells of democratic aspirations and developments have become very much apparent. Decentralization is more acceptable, and new parties are growing in countries where, for decades, one party successfully defended its grip on power. These are exciting times for Asia – and for the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats.
The underlying common ground among Asian examples of democratization, liberalization and consolidation seems to be the acceptance of the fact that liberal democracy not as some conservative politicians in the region have claimed, a "Western concept, thus, not suitable for Asians." That a regional economic crisis did not spare several of the strongman states in recent years only strengthened the argument for democracy. "The positive role of political and civil rights applies to the prevention of economic and social disasters in general," Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has observed. "When things go fine and everything is routinely good, this instrumental role of democracy may not be particularly missed. It is when things get fouled up, for one reason or another, that the political incentives provided by democratic governance acquire great practical value."
In truth, people in Asia – as in everywhere also – have always wanted to be taken seriously by the governments, participate in decision-making, and have a realistic chance to remedy their plight. But this demand has particularly become louder in the last decade or so. Today, more leaders in the region understand that the political aspirations of the people they represent have to be taken into consideration, and accommodated in political reforms. To ignore these aspirations is to erode the legitimacy of governments and to put administrations in jeopardy. To deny people of their political freedom and civic rights is to risk the sustainability of economic development.
At the same time, however, the people themselves are finding out that much is also expected of them for democracy to work and progress. Real participation can only come with commitment, as well as awareness of issues that affect not only the individual, but also society at large.
These new realizations demand a new approach to party politics, political organization and communication. Traditional constituencies and clienteles are dissolving, and no party is ensured success in elections without mobilization and mass appeal. Cambodian opposition leader and former CALD chairman Sam Rainsy also says, "(For) parties to be able to succeed in any advocacy...it must first and foremost, be strong, dynamic and accountable....Political parties are important, but it is also up to political parties to make themselves relevant."
That relevance is no longer confined within national borders. International awareness of political parties is becoming a trend, in tandem with the increasing realization that events in neighboring countries affect the entire region more directly than before.
The growing economic interdependency among nations has also made any kind of isolation more costly. But open borders and free flow of goods and services are not the only ingredients for successful economic cooperation and fair trade. There is also a need for a free flow of ideas, as well as more convergence in the political and social development of players.
Being primarily a network of liberal and democratic political parties, CALD believes that it can help people in the region deal with these challenges. Democracy, after all, has been on hold for many Asians for far too long.