All across Asia, old enemies seem to be making peace. In this issue we report on two such reconciliations – between President Ashraf Ghani’s government in Kabul and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the most notorious warlord in Afghanistan, and in Malaysia, between the ex-Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, and his former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, whom he put in jail. Recently we also witnessed another unlikely partnership, this time in the Maldives, between the old dictator, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, and the man who ousted him but also ended up imprisoned, Mohamed Nasheed.
What are we to make of these outbreaks of tolerance and understanding? Should we applaud them as a sign that it’s always good to talk; that Asian politicians are recognising the need to build alliances in support of enlightened policies, rather than riding roughshod over their opponents? Or do these situations have nothing in common?
It is easy to see why the Afghan government felt compelled to embrace Hekmatyar, despite the disgust of many in Kabul at a deal under which they will pay large sums to protect a man who once indiscriminately shelled the capital. Afghanistan has been at war for decades, and Ghani’s beleaguered government, under siege from the Taliban and the pan-Islamist militants of al-Qaeda and Islamic State, cannot afford to spurn any offer to reduce the number of its enemies. Nor is it easy to know what conclusions to draw from the Maldives, a country where more than half of the indigenous population are crammed on to one island and many of the rest are rented out to resort operators, where the Islamic strictures imposed on its own citizens do not apply.
A look at Malaysia, however, shows that there are wider lessons to be learned. Mahathir is making common cause with Anwar and another opponent he once locked up, Lim Kit Siang, because he has concluded that his two successors as Prime Minister, both men he hand-picked, have damaged his legacy. Yet many would judge that the corruption scandals and abuses of power which have erupted since his time in office are the inevitable outcome of his suppression of opposition, and that his successors are simply following in his footsteps.
Mahathir’s new allies are men with whom he has virtually nothing in common, beyond a desire to oust the present occupant of the Prime Minister’s office. This is pure personality politics, in a country where the other institutions of civil society, such as the judiciary and the media, have never been allowed to develop an independent existence. Those who argued that Mahathir’s authoritarianism should be excused by the many benefits he brought to Malaysia now have to witness what happens when such unchecked power is put in the hands of lesser men.
Mahathir at least did not have to descend to vote-rigging, unlike Gayoom, whose term in the Maldives lasted for three decades, even longer than his Malaysian counterpart’s 22 years. Despite his downfall, too many people had a stake in his system of dictatorship for democracy, in the shape of Nasheed, to survive for long. That Gayoom is now making common cause with Nasheed does not mean that he has seen the error of his ways: it is simply that he does not like the fact that someone else is now in charge of dispensing patronage.
Afghanistan is perhaps the supreme example of what results when citizens cannot have any faith in the political system. Their loyalty is instead placed in their clan, their ethnic group, their religious leaders – and the gun. Intolerance turns to endless armed conflict, overwhelming a well-meaning technocrat such as Ghani. But before neighbouring states shake their heads, it should be asked what the political dynasties of south Asia, from the Gandhis to the Bhuttos, the Bandaranaikes to the rival heirs in Bangladesh, say about the sophistication of their own politics. (It is true that in the US the wife of a former president is seeking to succeed him, not long after a father and son both occupied the White House, but the American system has better checks and balances, almost to the point of paralysis sometimes.)
Until it can be seen that Asian politicians are uniting around an agreed programme rather than engaging in a game of musical chairs, economies will stagnate and voters – where they are allowed to exercise a choice – will remain cynical. Without independent institutions, the rule of law cannot prevail, a fact which affects superpowers such as China as much as it does microstates like the Maldives. Asia cannot afford to cling forever to personality politics.