Did COVID-19 Strengthen Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia?

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Did COVID-19 Strengthen Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia?

There doesn’t appear to be any clear correlation between how a government handled the pandemic and the waning of political freedom. 

Did COVID-19 Strengthen Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia?

A street is blocked during a virus lockdown in Vung Tau, Vietnam on September 13, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo/Hau Dinh

It was a reasonable endeavor when the COVID-19 pandemic struck to consider how the crisis would impact Southeast Asian politics. In early 2020, pundits were undecided. Some expected governments to mishandle the pandemic, sparking public anger and increasing demands for transparency and competency. That appears to have been the case in Thailand and Indonesia. For others, the crisis would allow autocrats to expand their reach, cracking down on free-speech through the excuse of curbing “fake news” and cajoling citizens with “all in it together” narratives. That appears to have been the main outcome.

If Freedom House’s annual indexes are the bellwether, then the pandemic has forced democracy even more into retreat. Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam were all given worse scores in 2021 compared with 2020. Brunei stayed the same. Only Timor-Leste progressed – and it was the only Southeast Asian country ranked “free.” The most obvious calamity (and future historians will tell us how much the pandemic was a motivating factor) has been the military coup in Myanmar and the country’s likely head-first descent into becoming a failed state. 

The obvious counterfactual to consider is whether this  democratic deterioration would have happened without a global pandemic: Most probably, but not at the same pace and with different outcomes, is the simple answer. Joshua Kurlantzick, writing in The Diplomat in November 2020, argued that “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.” 

But there doesn’t appear to be any clear correlation between how a government handled the pandemic and the waning of political freedom – or, in other words, democracy has waned regardless of, and with little seeming correlation to, how the government handled the pandemic. Cambodia has led a hugely successful vaccination campaign, with close to 79 percent of the population now fully-vaccinated. Yet Prime Minister Hun Sen has greatly increased his party’s grasp on power since January 2020. Freedom House gave Cambodia a score of 24 (out of 100) in 2021, compared with 26 in 2019. Vietnam was held up as a poster-boy of success for its handling of the pandemic in 2020, but there one cannot help but see the rise of the Communist Party’s power.

However, I’ve long suspected that the short-term political implications of the pandemic itself in Southeast Asia to be exaggerated. Anger over stay-at-home lockdowns, such as in Kuala Lumpur or Ho Chi Minh City, dissipated quickly once residents were allowed to leave their homes and socialize. Regional governments have been blamed for their handling of the pandemic, but they easily point to other examples, namely the responses of Western governments, and remind their citizens of a worse fate that could have befallen them. Moreover, even in countries where vaccination has been slow, like Vietnam, they are still far ahead of most countries comparable in GDP per capita. The worldwide average rate of vaccination is 40.5 percent, which Brunei, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand are ahead of, according to Our World in Data. Laos is close at 38.2 percent. The populous Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam are still some way behind.

For us political spectators, it is somewhat disappointing that few elections in the region fell during the pandemic. Singapore’s long-ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) saw its share of the popular vote decline by 8.63 percent at last year’s ballot. Yet we can try to assess some of the pandemic’s political implications next year at Cambodia’s local election in June and Philippines’ presidential election in May. 

However, a far more interesting question is whether the pandemic has sown some seeds for future democratization in the region. After his government’s woeful handling, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha had to first fight off a vote of no confidence in parliament (which may be seen as a positive move for democracy), and then an apparent internal coup (not so good). The way Malaysia’s parliament was ignored and rebuffed during its change of government this year is to be deplored, yet at least that handover or power was peaceful and, indeed, should be informative for the country’s liberal parties. 

Reports have stressed the importance of civil society organizations in Malaysia helping to feed the hundreds of thousands of undocumented workers and refugees, taking over this responsibility from the military, for instance. Public charity was invaluable in Cambodia and Vietnam. As Luke Hunt reported in these pages in July, many Ho Chi Minh City residents had to turn to support from their neighbors, not local authorities, during the worst of the lockdowns. 

The COVID-19 pandemic pushed another 75 to 80 million people in emerging Asian economies into extreme poverty last year, the Asian Development Bank recently reported. What happens once the pandemic lockdowns end for good, and vaccination campaigns achieve herd immunity, but household finances continue to suffer? We’re likely to see pre-pandemic socialization return more quickly than pre-pandemic economic gains. 

It’s clear that many of the relief efforts introduced by governments to stem the economic collapse in 2020 and 2021 have disproportionately benefited the wealthy, from tax breaks to low interest-rates. Spiraling inflation is a boon for business, not consumers. Workers have seen stagnation in wages. For instance, Cambodia’s minimum wage for garment workers – which rose from $80 per month in 2013 to $182 in 2019 – was increased by just $1 for 2022, effectively a 2 percent pay cut because of booming consumer prices. 

The Vietnamese Communist Party or the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party aren’t going to be overthrown because of their pandemic failures this year. But dwindling economic growth from 2020 lasting until potentially 2023 or later –  and especially compared to heady pre-pandemic years of 6-7 percent growth – will sap the legitimacy they derive from ensuring people have a little better standard of living each year. 

Perhaps without their usual economic legitimacy, some Southeast Asian regimes will resort to nationalism or jingoism. Malaysia’s new government is already heading that way. But others would struggle to do so, particularly Hun Sen’s regime in Cambodia and the Vietnamese Communist Party, both of which are no longer arbitrators of nationalism. While China has won the “vaccine diplomacy” battle in Cambodia, China’s economic importance to the region at large will likely wane in 2022 as it focuses on its own economic problems.

Perhaps it’s a Panglossian forecast, but deprived of their economic credentials some Southeast Asian authoritarian governments might turn instead to reform. There’s been some movement in that direction in Vietnam and Laos (albeit at a stuttering pace). Malaysia’s new government has opened up slightly to working with opposition parties. After two years of inflated budget deficits, regional governments will now also have to tax their citizens even more than in pre-pandemic times. This could possibly lead to demands of “more representation if more taxation.” The ASEAN bloc has also shown some rare mettle by banning the Myanmar junta leader from a recent regional summit. 

And, as is usually the case, hopes for more political freedom could swing on singular events. Much depends on Myanmar’s anti-junta rebels. If they are successful at fighting off the Tatmadaw, that could unleash a wave of pro-democracy, “People’s Power” feeling across the rest of Southeast Asia. (The opposite is also true, admittedly.) A victory for a liberal candidate (such as Leni Robredo) at the Philippine presidential elections would send a deafening signal against populists in the region. 

To put it another way, the political implications of the pandemic were never going to be obvious while the pandemic is ongoing. And perhaps it’s a task better left to future historians.