Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Can COVID-19’s Impact on Democracy in Southeast Asia be Reversed?

As authoritarian leaders in many Southeast Asian countries use the pandemic to consolidate their hold, what needs to be done to buck the trend?

By Joshua Kurlantzick for
Can COVID-19’s Impact on Democracy in Southeast Asia be Reversed?

Filipino army troopers, some wearing protective masks, arrive to augment police enforcing a COVID-19 lockdown in Valenzuela, metropolitan Manila, on the morning of March 15, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Aaron Favila

Southeast Asian states have demonstrated mixed results in combating the coronavirus pandemic, yet the pandemic has been a political boon for illiberal leaders. Across the region, autocratic leaders, some of whom are illiberal populists, have used the pandemic as an opportunity to consolidate political power, regardless of whether these actions contribute to actual public health responses.

Southeast Asia, in fact, has had one of the more extensive COVID-19-related democratic regressions in the world, although COVID-19 has been a boon for many, though not all, illiberal politicians around the world: A recent Freedom House study shows that the condition of democracy and human rights has deteriorated in 80 countries since the pandemic began. Even before the coronavirus emerged, growing political polarization, illiberal populism and sectarianism, the legacy of authoritarian rule, and the continuing influence of militaries in politics were undermining democratic politics in Southeast Asia. But COVID-19 has sped up this regression.

The COVID-19-era consolidation of political influence must be imminently countered to ensure that politicians cannot use the pandemic to permanently amass more power. Across Southeast Asia, defenders of democratic norms and institutions should support safe elections and work to ensure that, even if leaders have amassed extensive powers to fight the pandemic, these powers are time-limited. In countries where the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths have been relatively low, such as Thailand, supporters of democratic rights and institutions should use street protests, parliamentary sessions, and social media, with appropriate health precautions, to pressure governments. In states that have failed to handle COVID-19 effectively, opponents should highlight these mistakes and show that limiting political freedoms does not guarantee better public health outcomes.

External actors have a role to play as well. Leading democracies, which for decades have promoted democratic change in South and Southeast Asia, should highlight flaws in the idea that authoritarian states can better address COVID-19, support the regions’ democrats, and push back against efforts by leading autocracies to suggest that authoritarian rulers are most effective at fighting COVID-19.

Backsliding and COVID-19

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South and Southeast Asia’s democratic progress has been in reverse since at least the early 2010s, and COVID-19 has sped up the reversal. In the 1990s and 2000s, Southeast Asia underwent extensive democratization, and by the early 2010s, countries including Timor-Leste, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, and even Cambodia and Myanmar, had made substantial political progress. But this progress has faltered. Overall, by the end the 2010s, seven of the 11 Southeast Asian states were less free than they had been a decade earlier.

Multiple forces have driven the democratic backsliding in Southeast Asia. In nations like Cambodia and Myanmar, which have had long histories of authoritarianism and civil conflict, democratic institutions and norms remained fragile even in the early 2010s. These institutions, never fully formed, came undone easily. In several other states, armed forces have never fully retreated to the barracks. In countries like Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand, working- and lower middle-class people also became increasingly dissatisfied with traditional politicians, who did not significantly improve social services or foster greater economic equality. These voters increasingly became attracted to charismatic but illiberal populist leaders, such as former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and current Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Many Southeast Asian illiberal populists also have used the region’s rising sectarianism, polarization, and explosion of social media to bolster their political bases and demonize minority groups and blame them for entrenched societal problems

Meanwhile, global democratic powers that, between the 1990s and mid-2010s, had criticized South and Southeast Asian leaders for undermining democracy have mostly stayed silent in recent years. Since the mid-2010s, leading democracies such as the United States, Australia, and Japan have become less focused on democracy promotion, as their publics have become less internationalist, as these wealthy states have elected leaders who have less interest in democracy promotion, and as these leading democracies themselves have become less democratic.

Although South and Southeast Asia were already experiencing democratic regression, the pandemic has accelerated the decline. The COVID-19-era backsliding is even more notable because it has come about even in fairly well-established democracies such as Indonesia. For one, political leaders across the regions have used the virus as an opportunity to enact new legislation, and sometimes issue executive orders, expanding their authority without clear time limits and even imposing versions of martial law. In the Philippines, Duterte has not only instituted harsh and poorly planned lockdown measures but also taken on expansive emergency powers. The Philippine legislature has extended Duterte’s emergency powers, and whether these powers will be time-limited at all remains unclear. There has, to this point, been minimal regional pushback from opposition politicians and civil society against pandemic-related legislation and executive actions that could further undermine democracy. This pushback has been limited in part because restrictions on gatherings have largely eliminated the space for public protests, and many legislatures are barely functioning.

Moreover, people are fearful of the virus and sometimes inclined to rally around their leaders. Fear can foster a public desire for strong, even autocratic, rule, particularly in places where the population believes that nascent democracy has not helped improve standards of living or combat corruption and that democratic leaders have been ineffective in their responses to COVID-19. In Indonesia, for instance, surveys by Indikator Politik Indonesia have found falling public support for democracy this year, a drop probably due in part to public sentiment that Indonesia’s democratically elected leaders have handled the pandemic response poorly.

Leaders in Southeast Asia also have been among the most aggressive in the world in using COVID-19 to marginalize opposition political parties and civil society and to centralize political control within legislatures. Even in Indonesia, the most consolidated democracy in Southeast Asia, the government of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has veered toward autocracy during the pandemic, in part by curtailing civil society. As Jokowi has struggled to address the crisis, the national government has imposed extensive curbs on free speech. The Indonesian police, for instance, have implemented new procedures that allow them to bring charges against people who criticize the president’s or other government officials’ COVID-19 response.

Many regional leaders also have spread disinformation about COVID-19 to obscure their failure to contain the pandemic and to bolster their power. And leading autocratic states outside of South and Southeast Asia have abetted this disinformation. In recent months, Beijing has increased its use of information and disinformation to attack democracies’ response to COVID-19 and promote its own approach to the virus.

Measures theoretically enacted to combat COVID-19 could last long beyond the end of the pandemic. History suggests that legislation enacted and executive actions taken in response to national emergencies are rarely repealed, even when those emergencies recede. In the United States, the Patriot Act, passed after 9/11, was essentially in place nearly two decades later despite criticisms that it had outlived its usefulness, that it gave law enforcement overly broad surveillance powers, and that it has been used in ways not envisioned by its drafters in 2001.

In Southeast Asia, legislation and executive actions implemented in the COVID-19 era could have similar fates. In Cambodia, Thailand, and other countries, governments have already extended their initial emergency powers. Leaders in these states will face massive temptations to maintain these powers even once the pandemic is under control.

Reversing the Slide

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Yet while the pandemic has allowed South and Southeast Asian leaders to become more autocratic in the short term, their longer-term failure to adequately address COVID-19 could provide opponents opportunities to challenge them and unwind their concentration of power. Indeed, governance failures could make them more vulnerable to challenges from political opposition, and undermine their abilities to centralize power. Around the world, leaders such as New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who have overseen effective responses to COVID-19, have seen their popularity skyrocket, with Ardern recently winning the biggest electoral victory in modern New Zealand’s history. Conversely, in countries where the pandemic has had a severe impact on public health and the economy, leaders’ public image and popularity often have declined.

Even in developed countries, public health experts predict that the pandemic will not be effectively contained and life will not return to some kind of normality until late 2021. In Southeast Asia, where mass vaccination could be a logistical challenge in some countries, a return to normality could take even longer. In the intervening years, illiberal leaders could take further measures to entrench their power and neutralize all opposition, moving their countries closer toward outright authoritarian rule.

It is essential, then, that defenders of democratic norms and institutions act quickly to prevent leaders from using the pandemic to entrench their power and undermine democracy. They should, for one, work to ensure that COVID-19-related restrictions on assembly and speech are statutorily limited. While it is reasonable for leaders to assume some emergency powers to enforce quarantines and lockdowns, legislators and courts in Southeast Asia should, to the best they can, ensure that emergency powers come with clear time limitations. Policymakers and activists should also use public campaigns to insist that apps or other online measures used for contact tracing are ended after the virus is contained and do not allow governments to monitor populations for other reasons.

The region also should hold elections during the pandemic and make them both fair and safe. Pro-democracy activists in the region should work to ensure that elections are not delayed or canceled and that elections planned in the next two years can be held, and held safely. If the governments do plan to delay, they should do so only after extensive consultation with opposition parties and civil society, to ensure that the delay seems nonpartisan and not designed to favor any one party or politician. To hold elections safely during the pandemic, these countries should seek consultation on best voting practices from experts in Singapore, South Korea and other states in the region that have successfully held elections during the pandemic.

Furthermore, supporters of democratic norms should take measures to prevent leaders from spreading disinformation and destroying checks on factual discourse, such as by backing the remaining independent media outlets and watchdog organizations. These are critical to combating disinformation and promoting transparency on government decisions, especially in a time of crisis. Efforts to protect these organizations could include public fundraising for media outlets that are losing advertising because of government pressure on businesses; legal actions to protect media outlets and watchdog organizations; and organizing pressure from retired leaders, prominent civil society leaders, and foreign leaders to keep media outlets and watchdog organizations open, among other measures.

They also should demonstrate and promote ways of protesting that are COVID-19-safe. Particularly in countries such as Thailand, which has largely contained the pandemic, leaders now have less of an excuse to maintain restrictions on freedom of speech and outdoor assembly. Supporters of democratic norms and institutions should show that they can hold parliament sessions and rallies and other public events without spreading COVID-19. In Thailand, for instance, demonstrators that have gathered for months in favor of democratic reforms have highlighted the measures they are taking to protect public health while rallying. Thailand’s caseloads have remained minimal despite the swelling protests. In other countries, anyone organizing public gatherings should do the same. Supporters of democracy also should advocate forcefully for ending limits on online speech, which poses no obvious threat to public health.

Supporters of democracy are tempted to combat illiberal leaders by highlighting their violations of norms and abuses of power. But the history of illiberalism in Latin America and other regions suggests that illiberal populists, like the Kirchners in Argentina, ultimately face their political downfall because of their inability to actually govern and not because of public disapproval of their norm-breaking. While taking measures to protect democratic institutions, opponents of illiberal leaders in Southeast Asia should focus their campaigns on bread-and-butter economic issues, COVID-19, and poor governance in general, arguing that limits on political freedoms have not produced better public health responses to the pandemic or helped cushion the economic pain.

And as a corollary to highlighting the links between illiberal politics and poor governance, regional politicians and civil society activists committed to democracy should emphasize that illiberal leaders are failing to control the pandemic because they are ignoring expertise, not because that expertise is misguided. If expertise is blamed for failed response to the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders who are even more norm-breaking and autocratic could come to power.

Powers from outside the region, too, can help preserve freedoms in Southeast Asia. The United States, Australia, Canada, Japan, and the European Union have regional strategies that rely on fostering freedom. By bolstering democrats, even during a pandemic, they can demonstrate a commitment to this approach and also distinguish themselves from China. Although China has distributed extensive COVID-19-related aid, it has also alienated some Southeast Asian populations by buttressing illiberal leaders, and by seeming to take advantage of the distraction of the pandemic to push its territorial claims in the South China Sea. Of course, these democratic powers cannot support rights and freedoms in South and Southeast Asia while they are undermining rights and freedoms at home. Yet to date the United States, and in particular President Donald Trump, has not effectively balanced battling COVID-19 with protecting freedoms at home.

Looking Beyond COVID-19

The situation for democratic progress seems grim in Southeast Asia. While failures to address COVID-19 could rebound against incumbent politicians, illiberal leaders today are often fairly secure in office. Social media makes it easier for them to distort information; they have effectively polarized societies; and they are often willing to use violent repression to stay in office

But despite the bleak outlook, the situation in Southeast Asia remains less grim than in some other developing regions. Many, though not all, illiberal Southeast Asian leaders are more constrained in how far they can repress democracy than peers in places such as Africa, because Southeast Asian states had built relatively strong democratic institutions and norms before the pandemic. And Southeast Asian illiberal leaders are not Xi Jinping or Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. Unlike truly autocratic leaders, they maintain a veneer of democratic politics, allowing at least somewhat free and fair elections, tolerating opposition parties while also harassing them, and accepting some degree of civil society activity. These constraints make Southeast Asia’s illiberal leaders more vulnerable than outright autocrats to real reform efforts. Even partially free and fair elections, and partially free civil society, provide the foundations for greater democratization.

Joshua Kurlantzick is senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author, most recently, of “A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA.”

This article is adapted from a Council on Foreign Relations Discussion Paper published on November 24. You can access the full paper here.