by Anusha Lall
With contributions from Focus on the Global South – Power and Democracy Team (Galileo de Guzman Castillo, Kheetanat Wannaboworn and Ridan Sun)
2022 Elections in Asia: In the News
Countries that have gone through national or sub-national elections[i] in the region this year include Cambodia, India, Malaysia, Nepal, Philippines, South Korea, Thailand and Timor-Leste. General election coverage has noted:
- The credibility of the national and local elections in the Philippines, despite a number of issues and challenges that included failure of vote counting machines, insufficiency of voter privacy, vote buying, abuse of state resources for campaign purposes, dynastic politics, and widespread disinformation in the face of declining press freedom and constraints on free expression.[ii]
- The first round of presidential elections in Timor-Leste followed by a run-off election as no candidate gained majority votes – ostensibly demonstrating “how democracy is celebrated and strong in the country”.[iii]
- The increased participation of women candidates[iv] and youth voters[v] in local elections in Nepal, as well as the surprising win of independent candidates[vi] in a number of locations. In some readings, this has been seen as a rejection of communal politics, the coming of age of young voters as well as turning away from entrenched party politics.[vii] These developments indicate a degree of public optimism as the Election Commission of Nepal proposes federal and provincial elections proposed for November 2022.[viii]
- The contentious nature of elections in South Korea in which the conservative President was elected by a margin of less than 1%, reflecting deep social divisions in the country.[ix]
- The apparent resurrection of the former ruling coalition (Barisan Nasional) in Malaysia, which swept the Johor State elections with active campaigning by the former Prime Minister Najib Razak, popular despite previous financial controversies pertaining to graft convictions, corruption and abuse of power[x]
- Thailand’s General Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha resumed official duty on September 30, after the Constitutional Court temporarily suspended his premiership on August 24, to consider a legal challenge to his 8-year term limit prior to the election in 2023, through a petition filed by the opposition parties. Discounting the time he was a Junta Chief and Prime Minister in 2014, the Court eventually ruled that the 8-year term started on the same day that the current constitution took effect from April 6, 2017 – allowing him to host APEC 2022 in mid-November.[xi][xii]
Analyses and Insights from Select Electoral Events
The following summarizes and builds upon the insights from the panel discussion “Elections and Democracy: Between Hope and Despair” , with speakers Dr. Walden Bello, Dr. Pitch Pongsawat, Dr. Surachanee Sriyai, interventions and inputs from participating peers, as well as other experiences from countries in the Asia region elicited through Focus staff, partners and allies.
The recent spate of elections and overall trends in the region underline concerns regarding the decline of democracy in Asia and across the world. While this turn to authoritarianism is not a new phenomenon, the questions that arise in present times are “Are we facing democratic failure? Is democracy failing as a model regime? Or is it democratic deficit?” The last is seen as a signal of democratic regimes losing grip, and people’s despair and discontent with their performance.
A closer examination of the national elections in the Philippines and sub-national elections in Thailand, Cambodia and India, among others, highlight different aspects and nuances of the changing face of elections and democracy in the shifting power dynamics within the region.
Authoritarian Challenges to Democracy and Continuity of Strong-Man Politics: While COVID-19 and its impact was a stress test for authoritarian governments, the expected unmasking did not take place. For instance, in the Philippines, the popular vote did not reflect a rejection of Rodrigo Duterte and the kind of governance he represented but rather continued to exhibit the peoples’ enduring frustration with and rejection of liberal democracy. In Thailand, and Bangkok in particular, while the pandemic exposed the limitations of the system and the gap between the haves and the have-nots, and despite the regime losing popularity, the consensus among voters in the recent elections was to vote for whoever volunteers to work hard and solve day-to-day problems – not for those demanding for systemic and structural change. . It has been pointed out that authoritarian regimes have the advantage of centralizing power and government responses through “lawfares” (as opposed to democracies with their institutional checks and balances), which will eventually reflect in the ballot of electoral democracies. Constitutional and other laws drafted to allow electoral advantages and maintain power such as the Constitutional Court of Thailand’s ruling to dissolve the opponent parties, also need to be factored in. In Cambodia, the Communal Elections was held with little to no contestation to Hun Sen’s ruling party, Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), as political pressure continues to clamp down on political opposition and prevent organising on the ground.
These elections have certainly upheld the continuity of strongman politics, as the son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos Jr. resurrects the memory of dictatorship in the Philippines, partnered with Duterte’s daughter Sara Duterte as the Vice President. In Cambodia, a community member noted, “From our observation, we see that the ruling party continues to threaten representatives of the opposition party members, environmentalists, land and human rights activists, and the youth through the use of the judiciary system in issuing arrest warrants or temporary detention. In Thailand, the Bangkok Governor, Chadchart Sittipunt in turn is also seen as a strongman drawing support from many segments in Bangkok society. His emerging leadership post-election is seen as pivotal not only for Bangkok but Thai politics in general.
Strategic Calculations Upholding ‘Electoral’ Democracies: In the case of the Philippines, in the narrowest electoral sense, it was a democratic outcome with approximately 59% of the electorate going for Marcos Jr., across social classes. However, looking at the micro statistics/ electoral demographics, in the National Capital Region (NCR), rich neighborhoods and middle classes went for Leni Robredo, while poorer neighborhoods went for Marcos. Even as assessment of the elections continues, pre-election surveys show that Marcos led Robredo across the board, but the lead was weakest for voters 65 and above.
In Cambodia, Hun Sen’s CPP that has ruled the country since 1979 won 74% of the popular vote translating to a near-absolute hold on commune chief positions (1,648 out of 1,652) and around 80% of council seats in an election marred with reports of intimidation and irregularities both ahead and during the elections. At least six candidates from the CPP’s main opposition challenger Candlelight Party—which separated from the erstwhile major political party, Cambodia National Rescue Party or CNRP that was dissolved by the Supreme Court of Cambodia in 2017—have been arrested while other candidates have been coerced into withdrawing their candidacies to avoid legal charges or prosecution.
Elizabeth Throssell, Spokesperson of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) stated in her public comment in June, “We are disturbed by the pattern of threats, intimidation and obstruction targeting opposition candidates ahead of communal elections in Cambodia on 5 June (…) the latest bout of political obstruction follows on from the systematic shrinking of democratic space documented by the UN Human Rights Office over recent years which undermines fundamental freedoms and the right to participate in public affairs.”[xiii]
In the elections for Bangkok Governor, while there was public frustration as a general backdrop the situation was at once similar, yet different. In the election campaign for Governor and City Councillors, a range of issues were brought to the forefront – animal rights, promoting of new parties, etc. well captured in pictures. In the 2019 general elections in Bangkok, the anti-regimes got more than 50% but for the advance vote, with much mileage for the young. Some parties were disqualified right before the election date, whereby votes went to the Future Forward Party [xiv]. In the current elections the independent candidate, Chadchart, won by a landslide, with 54.12% of the popular vote, going beyond the 2019 FFP numbers.
The understanding here is that national politics in Thailand is still dependent on political parties, and is both confrontational and divisive. In the case of the Bangkok elections, pro-regime parties could not agree on a leader and were defeated by the popular independent candidate, who presented himself as a very dedicated candidate/leader, working hard on the ground, with no party attachment and willing to work with everybody. While the strategy of running as an independent candidate may not work as well at the national level, in the city of Bangkok voting for the current Governor appeared more palatable than voting for traditional parties for people tired of the status quo. With residents being hopeful, perception became an important factor. Moving from the national and city levels to community level politics, elections across 50 districts of Bangkok were fragmented, though 34 (a majority) of elected councilors are from one party or regime preference, with 17 incumbents holding their position, though from a demographic perspective there were only 14 young candidates in the fray. Thus there are layers to Thai politics, each with different foundations.
Looking at the micro-level, the focus was on service delivery to low income populations, despite the contradiction between the campaign around “small people” and the real estate lobby that backed the Bangkok gubernatorial candidate. Improvement in the lot of the poor was justified in the context of overall improvements to the economy and business climate, i.e. in a neoliberal frame. There is realization of the need to serve poorer sections of society though there is yet to be talk of peoples’ rights – providing the broad strokes of the Bangkok urban democracy model.
Thus from the Bangkok elections in particular, it appears that people are doing more research beyond party lines before they vote, which could become an emerging pattern in Asia. There is deference to a sense and vision of leadership, even as discontentment and despair get reflected in polls and vote-outs, keeping a semblance of democracy going.
Family and Patronage Systems, Power Sharing and Political Settlements: Despite the first Presidential and Vice Presidential win by a majority vote since the 1986 People Power Revolution, there are many perceptible weaknesses to this Marcos-Duterte alliance. In place of elements unifying the leadership, there is a split or sharing of power between Dutertes of the South and Marcoses of the North, with many political dynasties rallying around this Marcos-Duterte axis. However, this axis is inherently unstable given the power sharing arrangement. One manifestation of the impending rift in the alliance is how Marcos Jr. assigned Sara Duterte as the Education Secretary, even though she had stated that she wanted to take charge of the Department of Defense (DND). It is assumed that Marcos Jr. would not want to give Sara Duterte the control of the military through the DND, as part of the military was central to overthrowing his father Marcos Sr. in the martial law years. Even in the military, there will be a great deal of dissatisfaction and the bureaucracy will have difficulties in adjusting to this new regime. There remains a part of the population that will not give any legitimacy to the Marcos presidency and accept that the son of the former dictator is in power, as human rights and pro-democracy groups continue to struggle.
In the case of the Bangkok elections as well, a closer look at details of community level engagement and poll results reveal the extension and leveraging of family and patronage systems in the capital city of Thailand. These pro-regime candidates are competing against each other for candidacy making the chance of winning relatively low, as compared to strong candidates like Chadchart. Last week before the election, a former junta-selected Bangkok Governor, Police General Asawin Kwanmuang, persuaded regime supporters to cast ballots for him in a thin hope to unite strategic voting campaign for the Conservatives.
Disinformation, Revisionism, ‘Toxic Positivity’ and Disenchantment: In the Philippines, there had been a decade-long campaign by Marcos partisans to whitewash the nightmare years of Martial Law as the “golden years,” a distortion of history and disinformation efforts portraying the current President as a regular fellow. This phenomenon has been described by sociologist Nicole Curato as ‘toxic positivity’. At the same time, the disinformation campaign would not have had that much impact if not for an audience receptive to it, which is where the problem is really seen to lie.
It is important to note that close to 55% of the Philippines electorate did not have direct experience of the terrors and horrors of martial law. What they did have growing up was direct experience of the failures of the elite democracy that was established following the EDSA Revolution in 1986 to deliver its promises of a better life (more equality, less poverty, more justice, and more empowerment). The post-EDSA generation has witnessed inequality in which 10% of the population controls 62% of the wealth and income; 25% of the population (even before the pandemic) remains poor; even as manufacturing and agriculture has been destroyed by neoliberal policies pushed by the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and World Trade Organization, for over 30 years. The only alternative for a better life for those with no work or poorly paid work was to find employment opportunities overseas which, while often offering better pay, are also in many cases dangerous, unregulated, and leave workers vulnerable to abuse.
Thus, Filipino voters reacted to prevailing social and economic conditions, beyond structural issues of corruption, government mismanagement, and elite democratic practices that have characterized Filipino politics since 1986. It was the resentment and the conditions of peoples’ lives worsening or being unchanged, on the one hand, and either the people’s lack of awareness of the violence during Martial Law or the deep-seated anti-communist propaganda that justified such violence, on the other hand, that made them receptive to this effort to paint the nightmare years of the Martial Law and Marcos regime as the “Golden Age”. This resentment against the failure of the democratic republic to deliver had surfaced in 2016 as well, bandwagoning across class, catapulting Duterte to power through electoral insurgency. At the same time, these elections have been a populist game, aimed only at winning seats, with 48% of these now filled with dynastic politicians.
Through various democratic revolutions, the youth generally looked to the future, motivated and mobilized by ideologies or by the images of an order based on democracy and equality. For the Philippines, this was a youth movement that instead of looking to the future was mobilized towards an imagined past. Usually, those that have provided an image of the future have been the left, but the Philippine left was unfortunately unable to do this. Among other reasons, including repression, there has been an inability to adapt the progressive message and image to current conditions to the point whereby for the last 30 years, the left was fragmented and marginalized as a political actor in the country. This lack of political imagination led the left to become a minor adjunct of liberal elite parties rather than running its own independent agenda with a formulation of a future that the young people would adhere to. This ability to have a political imagination to offer to the young was also missing in the Philippines during the 2022 elections.
In Cambodia, garment workers who continue to struggle with inflation and pandemic-induced economic hardship lamented the election results and expressed their disenchantment: “My vote is meaningful for my life, but I’m so frustrated because the result showed the opposite of my expectation.” Another added, “The government has been in power for so long and has not made any substantial progress. Land disputes are widespread, so I want to see a change of new leaders who might make the situation better.”[xv]
Youth as Swing Voters: The majority of the electorate in the Philippines that has brought the present regime to power was too young or born after the 1986 People Power Revolution. Victory in the Bangkok city elections is also partly due to the younger generation, with 600,000-700,000 first time voters in an election that has taken place after 9 years. Youth then voted against status quo (and a governor that people did not vote for) and for value competency, education and hard work, represented in the Chadchart campaign.
Digital Politics and Social Media: Digital outreach and social media certainly aided the image creation (or disinformation and whitewashing) process for Ferdinand Marcos Jr., supported by authoritarian controls on this space. While there is cause for concern it is also acknowledged that the social media arm of progressive camp, combining social media commentary with comedy, was also one of its biggest campaign successes.
In Bangkok, digital spaces supported engagement with new voters, different types of reality or game shows, interactive governance and active citizenship (e.g. for reporting and addressing problems on the ground) even though it is believed that social media and technologies were not key contributors to the Chadchart victory beyond securing greater visibility for a working style that appealed to voters.
However, it is agreed that social media will certainly remain an important factor in upcoming elections and overall politics in the region, both as a space for manipulation and opportunity.
Some Lessons for Rebooting the Progressive Agenda
Rather than focusing on the numbers, the lessons in support of robust democracy are in terms of the insights regarding why people voted how they did. In this regard, it also becomes important for liberal reformists and progressives to forego stagnant ideological positions, and move to more critical and well-defined (democratic socialist) agendas addressing emerging issues, rather than merely defending liberal democracy. From the Philippines experience, a question is whether the elections will also be a dividing line between the old and the new left, or lead to new unities.
The undermining of accountability is very much at play for now – which erases, blurs history. In the current balance, there is also need for historical amnesia to be challenged, to stabilize democratization process and be aware of the personalization of politics, inter-elite struggles for power and hijacking of resources – phenomena being seen more and more.
Those committed to participatory democracy generally swing between hope and despair, as there still remains resistance and hope of building new politics. It is important to reiterate that democracy is not only a system of getting into power but a governance system, post elections. The question then is what we can do to build a structure of governance founded on equality and human rights, and that delivers on the hopes and needs of all society and not just the elite.
The emphasis is on creating the foundations of a democratic society. While the will of a majority at the cost of minorities is seen all too often, majoritarianism is not democracy. Genuine democracy is a long game, and not just calculative or strategic. It happens at local, community levels, at the level of people – presently undermined through patronage politics, role of class, etc. Further, as neoliberalism is being used as a frame to support visions of a good life, it is well noted that it only results in reproducing inequalities of the past.
Past and upcoming elections in the region in 2022 include: Commune elections in Cambodia; India election for President, Vice-President, By-elections to the Lok Sabha, Rajya Sabha, 7 State Legislative Assemblies, Municipal Councils and Local Bodies; Johor State Elections in Malaysia; Elections for the National Assembly, Local Government and House of Representatives in Nepal; Elections for President, Vice-President, Senate, House of Representatives and Local Governments in the Philippines; Elections for President in South Korea; Election for Bangkok Governor and City Councilors in Thailand; Elections for President in Timor-Leste.
[xiv] For instance, the Future Forward Party seeks to abolish the lese majeste law, a controversial issue in Thailand.