Southeast Asia Likes Polarization – and That’s Not a Bad Thing

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Southeast Asia Likes Polarization – and That’s Not a Bad Thing

The region’s problem is not that there is too much political contestation, but rather that there is not enough.

Southeast Asia Likes Polarization – and That’s Not a Bad Thing

Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto arrives at a campaign rally in Medan, Sumatra, Indonesia, January 13, 2024.

Credit: Facebook/Prabowo Subianto

Almost two billion people, around half of the world’s population, will vote in elections this year. It could either be the 12 months that see the triumph of liberal democracy or the demise of political liberty. But things will be a little drab in Southeast Asia. Yes, some 200 million Indonesians will head to the polls in February, but they have a paltry list of candidates to pick from. The differences between them are cigarette-paper thin. Do read Max Lane’s article (“Polarization in Indonesia: Distinguishing the Real from the Rhetorical”) from August, in which he argues that polarization in Indonesian mainstream electoral politics between 2013 and 2020 was merely “rhetorical,” and that actual social polarization – between an “organized civil society oriented to social justice, democratic rights, and socially liberal political outlook and a political establishment solidly oriented to the current hierarchy and values inherited from the New Order era of crony capitalism” and between “an increasingly modernizing, secular and socially liberal worldview, especially in urban centers, and a very traditional, religious, and socially conservative worldview” – has not divided the political establishment, which has far more in common than divides it.

The region’s only other election this year will be for the Senate in Cambodia, which isn’t directly elected by the people, and district ballots, again non-direct. The Cambodian People’s Party will win both. The only intrigue – and it’s not really intriguing at all – is whether the ruling party wins all seats or all but one or two of them.

This leads me to think that we need a word for elections where one side is guaranteed to win. “Uncontested election,” “rigged election,” or “walkover” are either euphemisms or conjure the sense in the unwitting mind that there’s some overlap between a real election and a sham one; as if the latter could become the former with only a few cosmetic changes. But they are categorical differences, different species of ballots. Given the etymology of “election” – the Latin word eligere, “to pick out” – and the point of the rigged election is to enforce a single choice upon the masses, what about “enfortions”? “Enforce” comes from the Latin infortiāre, meaning to impose something but not by physical force, which is not a bad definition of such ballots. If you grant this, maybe you’ll permit that 2024 will be a year of enfortions in Southeast Asia.

So this year, more than ever, it’s worth remembering that the Southeast Asian electorate actually likes plurality – even polarization – when it is on offer. There is quite some light between Pakatan Harapan and Barisan Nasional (let alone the Perikatan Nasional opposition) as well as between the mainland and Sarawak parties in Malaysia. Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Leni Robredo were two very different candidates in the 2022 presidential race in the Philippines.

Recall also Thailand’s general election last year. The party that won the most votes, Move Forward, campaigned perhaps for the first time in Thai history on a platform of radical reform to the monarchy and military. At the other extreme, the two military-run parties won 14 percent of the vote, combined. The nationalist center parties, like the Democrats and Bhumjaithai, took around 5 percent of the vote. Go back further. Only once between 1993 and 2017, when Cambodia’s ruling CPP set about creating a one-party state, did it win more than 50 percent of the vote at any general election. In 2013, perhaps the most consequential of all Cambodian elections, just four percentage points separated the CPP and its main challenger.

In fact, last year’s Thai election was an example of all that is wrong with the profligate voices who claim that polarization is the biggest scourge of our era and who say that all things in politics would be a little better if everyone moved to the center ground. First, this claim is usually made by those who ventriloquize for the center ground, thus making it a party-political statement.  Moreover, if one calls polarization “pluralism” or “political competition” then it sounds a little less alarmist. There’s a general abhorrence with monopolies in economies; so why not monopolies of thought or monopolies of style?

It might not be as egregious that politics in Cambodia is dominated by one party as politics in Indonesia is dominated by a tiny number of political elites, but it’s egregious nonetheless. So much of the international community’s interest goes into judging whether an election is “free and fair” that it’s almost breathless to ask whether democracy is as much defined as how you can vote as much as by who you can vote for. Some 18 parties competed in Cambodia’s general election last year but every Cambodian who turned up on polling day knew there was zero chance of anyone else but the CPP winning power, and they knew that any opposition politician elected to parliament would automatically have to become an all-but-in-name ally of the CPP.

The scourge of our age isn’t polarization; it’s demonization. There’s nothing wrong with people holding vastly differing opinions on what is best for society. What’s awful is if each side sees the other as illegitimate or worse. When Thais were asked for their opinion last year, they returned polarized results. But the abhorrent event of 2023 was that the military-royal establishment would never accept Move Forward forming a government, portraying the country’s biggest political party and, by definition, a massive swathe of the Thai public, as direct threats to the nation. In Cambodia, some 42 percent of the electorate voted for a party in 2013 that four years later was judged to have been plotting a U.S.-backed coup. There are other examples, but linger and think about what this says about how the authoritarian sees society. Cambodia’s ruling party must think that two-fifths of the population is treason-adjacent.

But for the polarization-is-the-scourge-of-our-age types, it’s also worth considering Myanmar. Would you have favored a little less of the anti-military agitation since the 1960s? Many, many sins have been ascribed to Aung San Suu Kyi’s government between 2016 and 2021, but one of the most coherent arguments is that she wasn’t radical enough; she didn’t see through the liberal reforms she promised when in opposition, thinking that doing so would increase the likelihood of a military coup. So much so that she defended a genocide, debasing her own cause. And a military coup happened nonetheless. A similar charge could be made of Anwar Ibrahim, liberal-ish when without power but who hasn’t followed through since becoming prime minister, and of the outgoing Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who has done more than most of his recent predecessors to set back the country’s democratic experiment.

Yet, the situation in Myanmar today has been a long time coming; a moment for Myanmar to engage in the post-colonial civil war that many other Southeast Asian nations underwent. Indeed, as I argued recently, whereas every other Southeast Asian country attained independence and then engaged in an internal political struggle to determine what to do with that independence, this historical process was frozen in time in Myanmar because of the military’s original coup in 1962. What we’re seeing now is that process finally playing out.

But would the anti-polarization corp dissuade the Myanmar people from engaging in their fight against the forces of reaction? If you believe polarization to be the political vice of our times, do you recommend that the militia and civil disobedience movement pack up their 3D-printed guns and accept the new status quo? To take the center ground in Myanmar would be to think (ludicrously) that either the NLD and junta could agree on a compromise government together or that any compromise that returns to the status quo ante would prevent another coup sometime in the future.