Year of ASEAN Opposition?

Opposition politicians have made big gains in many Southeast Asian nations. It’s a sign of the public’s frustration.

Since last year, opposition parties across Southeast Asia have achieved varying degrees of electoral and political success.

The opposition Liberal Party dominated the 2010 Philippine elections and defeated the ruling party, which had been in power since 2001. The opposition victory reflected the unpopularity of former President Gloria Arroyo, who was accused of electoral fraud, human rights violations, corruption and plundering state coffers.  

Recently, the opposition Pheu Thai Party defeated the ruling Democrat Party in Thailand, which led to the election of Yingluck Shinawatra – the country’s first female prime minister. Yingluck is the younger sister of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was forced into exile after he was overthrown in a military coup in 2006. During the campaign, the opposition highlighted the culpability of the Democrat Party in the violent crackdown of anti-government protests last year, the worsening insurgency in the southern part of the country, the hostile relationship with Cambodia over a border dispute and the rising economic difficulties experienced by ordinary Thais.

Meanwhile, the People's Action Party (PAP) is still Singapore’s dominant political coalition after it won the most seats in the general election last May. Also, the candidate the party endorsed won last week’s presidential election. But the opposition scored some significant victories this year after it managed to win a few but strategic parliamentary seats. The PAP, which has dominated Singaporean politics since the late 1950s, also suffered its worst electoral performance this year, which according to analysts has permanently altered Singapore’s political landscape.

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As in Singapore, the ruling coalition in Malaysia still has more than enough numbers in parliament, but the opposition is gaining ground. The disenchantment of the public with the country’s political leadership is also rising as seen in the massive participation of ordinary Malaysians in the Bersih democracy march in July. Organized in support of electoral reforms, the Bersih has since then evolved into an opposition political movement following the overreaction of the government, which violently dispersed the peaceful march. Bersih is expected to bring more votes to the opposition.

Moving on to Burma, many analysts were surprised to learn that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has agreed to meet President Thein Sein of the military-controlled government. They are now asking if the global democracy icon has decided to work with the people who imprisoned her for more than two decades. But it could simply be an opposition tactic for outmanoeuvring the generals. Just a few weeks ago, Suu Kyi was allowed to travel to the north of the country for the first time since she regained her freedom, and she was warmly greeted by the people in the streets. The opposition hasn’t yet ditched the prospect of revolution, but it seems to be quietly maximizing the limited democratic space afforded to it by the Junta.  

The new Southeast Asian leaders aren’t simply getting younger – most of them have also come from opposition ranks. The success of various opposition parties and movements in articulating the sentiments of the people, and harnessing them into a potent political force, has produced a new generation of leaders who are aware of the need for immediate political and economic reforms. Of course, opposition victories aren’t a guarantee that conditions will now improve, but at least it proved that the emergence of a genuine opposition can foster democracy. This trend should be welcomed and promoted across the region.