ASEAN Beat

Southeast Asia Between Democracy and Authoritarianism: Look Beyond the Litmus Tests

While there are important markers to assess the evolution of regime transitions, they can oversimplify more complex developments.

Prashanth Parameswaran
Southeast Asia Between Democracy and Authoritarianism: Look Beyond the Litmus Tests
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The focus on Thailand’s elusive elections that would return it to democracy after nearly five years of military rule – set for March 24 as this was written – is warranted and significant in and of itself given the country’s tortuous political struggles since the early 2000s. But that focus is also the latest manifestation of a broader disconnect often seen: that while the issue of continuity and change in regime types in Southeast Asia is a far more complex and longer-term affair, it is common for observers to note certain markers or “litmus tests” that particular years present. The next few years offer no shortage of such markers for regime transitions in Southeast Asia, and it is worth examining what they are as well as the more complex realities that they often oversimplify.

Though Southeast Asia is often subject to episodic or country-focused accounts about whether democracy is rising or declining, the region has in fact long been home to a hybrid of regime types and varying societal pressures beyond the state. This makes it more difficult to evaluate the significance of individual developments or extrapolate single linear trends from perceived markers or litmus tests.

The past few years alone has seen this play out. Myanmar’s opening in 2011 and the victory by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) in the 2015 elections was a historic and significant democratic triumph for the country and the region, but it also exposed the significant governance challenges that remained beyond that litmus test and below the state level, with a case in point being the Rohingya crisis. And while politics in the one-party communist governments of the region such as Vietnam tend to get little focus beyond traditional signposts like party meetings or congresses, occasionally fierce public protests and private elite contestations have revealed that the more meaningful indicators of political evolution can often be concealed.

True to form, 2019 has already seen the conversation on the subject simplistically dominated by a focus on scheduled elections in Indonesia and Thailand. While there is of course no doubt that these elections are significant in and of themselves, one should keep in mind that they will be the product of ongoing, wider trends that will persist thereafter as well.

In the case of Indonesia, its democratic transition in 1999 – no doubt a significant development for the country and the wider region – has been followed by occasional bouts of worry about potential reversals that tend to resurface with elections, and those anxieties have been rising with other perceived trends such as the hardening of religious sentiment witnessed during the tenure of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. Meanwhile, while the holding of expected elections in Thailand this year would end a five-year wait for an end to military rule that dates back to a coup in May 2014, it is also the case that past polls have failed to end a broader tug of war between competing political forces, which is the structural challenge for Thai politics.

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That applies to countries with other upcoming or just concluded perceived litmus tests as well. In the Philippines, while midterm elections are being seen as a litmus test for the rule of President Rodrigo Duterte halfway through his single, six-year term, the key question for Duterte’s rule actually has more to do with how the balance of power between him and the other institutions in the country, including the legislature, the judiciary, and the wider public, will evolve as he undertakes some of his more ambitious domestic and foreign policy agenda items. In the case of Malaysia, though the attention of observers may have strayed following last May’s shock election that ousted the country’s ruling party since independence, in many ways the shape of future politics is only beginning to be worked out, including the transition between current Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and his former deputy prime minister turned opposition leader turned prime minister in waiting, Anwar Ibrahim.

This is worth bearing in mind with other ongoing transitions as well where litmus tests lie much further ahead. For instance, while Singapore’s next elections only need to take place before mid-January 2021, the spotlight has already been on the country’s politics as the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), which has governed the country since independence, begins to transition away from the Lee family. Similarly, while Myanmar’s next national elections are not expected till 2020, the evolution of the country’s politics is a continuing story, including the fortunes of the NLD following its by-election defeat last year and the role of the military. And though Prime Minister Hun Sen still continues to rule Cambodia, the focus following his election win last year has been on a future succession plan and the ruling party’s round of rebalancing domestically and internationally to consolidate its power.

It is also important to keep in mind that politics is still very active even in the case of regime types whose litmus tests tend to generate less mainstream interest relatively speaking, be it one-party communist governments in Laos and Vietnam or the sultanate Brunei. In these cases, state media accounts and a focus on anniversaries and upcoming meetings and congresses (preparations have already begun for Vietnam’s 13th National Congress in 2021, for instance) can often conceal or simplify the more complex realities underway within the regime and among wider society. Regrettably, only extreme events or periodic reshuffles tend to refocus attention on these complexities that are ever-present (like the major reshuffle we saw in Brunei in 2018, which received very few headlines internationally but was domestically significant).

In short, though there is no shortage of expected litmus tests in Southeast Asian regime transitions for those looking for them in the coming years, it is worth keeping in mind that these markers can often belie the complexities of these very transitions. To understand these complexities requires a more granular understanding of interactions between state and society, which are ongoing amid a mix of expected and unexpected developments in what is expected to be an event-filled few years in Southeast Asian politics.