Op-Ed | Whither democracy in 2019?

Indonesian President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, left, and his wife Iriana arrive for a family photo with leaders and their spouses during the APEC Economic Leaders Meeting summit in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

BANGKOK (The Nation/ANN) – Coming elections in Thailand, Indonesia, and India will be a test of authoritarianism’s newfound appeal.

Democracy fell on hard times around the world this past year, even where voters were still allowed to make a choice. In many countries, their choice was for illiberal, authoritarian leadership. The ideological swing to the right – which felt abrupt but can be seen with hindsight as a long time in the making – seemed to prioritize order over compassion, nationalism over pluralism, and barriers to immigrants over the sanctity of human rights.

Fear became the motivating factor as voters in the United States chose Donald Trump and elsewhere like-minded politicians who took advantage of growing isolationist sentiment and economic disparity. The world community now seems spread much farther apart than it was not long ago.

The 2019 political calendar for Asia, especially Southeast Asia, doesn’t look bright either. India, Indonesia and Thailand are all holding national elections in the coming months. Incumbent leaders, including our military junta, are struggling to muster support, distributing largesse that voters paid for the first place. It’s always been a poor strategy for the long term, but it’s usually successful in the short run. This is an inherent problem for democracy – its tenets can be easily exploited if the ground rules are unfair.

Fearing the power of the religious right, Indonesia’s progressive-minded President Joko Widodo has hedged his chances by selecting as his running mate a closed-minded, homophobic, racist Islamist candidate. Aware of his waning support, Thai junta chief Prayut Chan-o-cha is churning out populist schemes to parry the allure of the Pheu Thai Party.

In the past year, Southeast Asia witnessed two contrasting elections. In Malaysia, a morbidly corrupt government was felled. In Cambodia, an authoritarian leader retained his grip by doing whatever was necessary, regardless of global protests. Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party won every parliamentary seat a year after the Supreme Court dissolved the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party. He also forced out of business an English-language newspaper that was critical of his government.

We have come a long way since the years of hope in the mid-1980s when democratic movements flourished in Thailand and the Philippines. Indonesia followed suit in 1998 with the ouster of the tyrant Suharto, while Myanmar took an important step towards democratic reform in 2011. It didn’t take long for the generals in Myanmar to begin resorting to old habits. Despite the nominally democratic government sharing power with the military, the Army resumed oppression of the news media and unleashed a genocidal whirlwind on the Muslim Rohingya, forcing 700,000 to flee the country.

The world pays lip service to the importance of a “people’s mandate”, but what happens when citizens willingly embrace authoritarianism, as seen in Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with the help of the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party, was granted another term?

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is also expected to hand out freebies to regain ground lost in state elections to the opposition National Congress. His uphill battle results from his Bharatiya Janata Party being unable to resolve the plight of struggling farmers who expected Modi to boost crop prices and waive debts.

Pakistan last year elected Imran Khan, a sports celebrity turned firebrand nationalist and his Movement for Justice Party. Khan paints himself as a foe of the corrupt liberal elite but remains close to the powerful military, the very establishment that rights activists blame for obstructing Pakistani democracy.

By Editorial Desk