Politicians across Southeast Asia are gearing up for a busy year of elections, which is unlikely to result in any significant or immediate shift in political power. However, the groundwork is being laid for eventual change by opposition leaders who have spent years in the political wilderness.
This is particularly true of Malaysia and Cambodia, where the ruling parties have dominated political life for decades. Backed by powerful political armies and working from political playbooks of bullying and intimidation tactics, electioneering in both countries is considered a one-sided affair.
Nevertheless, the popularity of both governments has suffered.
In Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) must deal with an electorate tired of corruption and an overwhelming rural population which has become incensed by constant allegations of land grabbing by corporations and the politically well-connected.
Hun Sen declared official campaigning for the July 28 elections would begin a month earlier but the truth is his CPP has been in election mode since the middle of last year and on Monday he called for a ban on personal insults during campaigning.
In Malaysia, Prime Minister Najib Razak is putting on a brave face after tens of thousands rallied in support of the opposition over the weekend. Some expect elections to take place as earlier as March, though some analysts believe they will take place closer to June.
Neither the CPP nor the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) is likely to lose. But opposition parties are justifiably expecting to increase the number of seats they hold in parliament and voter turnout figures will be the key to achieving this.
Low turnout rates will confirm suspicions that many in the electorates are tired of the political shenanigans in both countries and sadly feel their vote is not worth casting.
Local and regional elections are also planned for The Philippines and Indonesia.
In the Philippines a 150-day ban on carrying guns in residential areas in the lead-up to May 13 polls for local government and seats in both houses of the national parliament has gone into force.
Indonesia’s estimated 170 million eligible voters will also go to the polls this year to vote in 15 gubernatorial races as well as another 100 polls for regional government positions.
Local issues will likely determine which candidates are victorious in these races. Nonetheless, the election results will have repercussions for the wider Southeast Asia and Asia-Pacific landscape.
As Muslim-majority countries, candidates running in Indonesia and Malaysia will be pressured by voters to act over the violence in Burma involving Muslim Rohingyas that has led thousands to seek sanctuary outside of their country. As a rule, Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur also tend to trade diplomatic and cultural punches ahead of polls.
Candidates contesting elections in the Philippines will likely use any territorial dispute in the South China Sea – known as the West Philippine Sea by Manila – to gain political advantage at home, particularly if it involves China. That dispute has the potential to widen and include Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan; all claimants to islands in the sea.
During the lead-up to the last Cambodian poll, a convenient little border war broke out between Cambodia and Thailand after Bangkok sent its troops over the border where they occupied a revered Cambodian temple at Preah Vihear.
This suited Hun Sen and helped boost his campaign. A decision by an international court over that dispute is expected within the next few months, just in time for the next Cambodian election but whether the court’s ruling will work to Hun Sen’s political advantage or not remains to be seen.
As an entrenched power, the CPP—like UMNO in Malaysia— is unlikely to face defeat at the next poll. But governments in both Malaysia and Cambodia could face an angry voter backlash which could reduce their majorities in parliament and lay the groundwork for their defeats in future elections.
Meanwhile, the potential regional fallout among governments that must weigh genuine regional issues and commonsense against their political fortunes ensures that 2013 will be a lively year indeed.