Why Are Southeast Asia’s Young Voters Turning to Illiberal Populists?

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ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Why Are Southeast Asia’s Young Voters Turning to Illiberal Populists?

Recent elections have upended the assumption that young people are inherently more progressive than their elders.

Why Are Southeast Asia’s Young Voters Turning to Illiberal Populists?

Workers install a traffic CCTV pole as a an LED board is seen featuring a video of Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, left, and his running mate Gibran Rakabuming Raka as animation characters, at the main business district in Jakarta, Indonesia, Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim

On February 14, Indonesia held its long-anticipated presidential election. While the General Elections Commission has until March 20 to announce the final results, based on a preliminary quick count of the votes, Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, a former army general, is on track to win the presidency with a significant majority of the total votes cast. A former son-in-law of the dictator Suharto, Prabowo is alleged to be responsible for war crimes committed in East Timor, as well as the disappearance of pro-democracy activists during the May 1998 riots that led to the fall of the Suharto regime. As such, his expected victory has raised fears about the future democratic health of Indonesia.

Should the final results confirm Prabowo’s victory, he will no doubt have young voters to thank. Exit polls conducted by Indonesian newspaper Kompas’ research arm found that 65.9 percent of Gen Z voters had voted for Prabowo, compared to just 43.1 percent of baby boomers. That youth voters could possibly deliver a controversial figure who has spent decades cultivating an image of a populist strongman to the presidency challenges the traditional narrative that youth voters are inherently more progressive than their elders.

However, based on previous trends across Southeast Asia, we argue these results are to be expected. In recent elections held in neighboring Malaysia and the Philippines, many young voters ended up supporting illiberal populist candidates. We argue that two factors seemingly drove young voters to do so, namely a common dissatisfaction with the status quo and the outsized role of social media. It may well be the case that similar factors helped influence Indonesia’s young voters at this month’s polls.

Youth Leading the Illiberal Turn

Malaysia’s 2022 general election and the Philippines’ 2016 and 2022 presidential elections saw more potent forms of illiberal populism emerge as viable and competitive political ideologies. In particular, it was youth voters who proved most susceptible to said ideologies, raising fears about the future health of both countries’ democracies.

As expected from the pre-election polls, Malaysia’s 15th General Election (GE15) in November 2022 resulted in a hung parliament. The progressive-leaning Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition emerged with 82 seats, while the once long-time ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) emerged with just 30 seats. What caught analysts by surprise were the major gains made by the conservative Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition, which secured 74 seats. The sweeping gains made by PN, particularly those of its constituent Islamist party PAS, raised concerns about the future of inter-ethnic harmony in multi-racial Malaysia given that PN, and especially PAS, espouses a toxic, exclusivist form of Malay ethno-religious nationalism.

Analysts have attributed this Islamist “green wave” to youth voters, particularly young Malay-Muslims. In one analysis of the GE15 electoral results based on seats with 30 percent or more voters aged 30 years old and below (under-30s), it was found that PN won 33 seats while PH managed to secure 19 and BN only 10. While PN won the majority of the youth vote, PH’s support came mainly from older voters.

The presidential election campaigns held in the Philippines in 2016 and 2022 likewise saw a major turn in the country’s political landscape. Following the relatively liberal presidency of Benigno III “Noynoy” Aquino, the tides would turn in a strongly illiberal direction. In 2016, the foul-mouthed, gun-toting Rodrigo Duterte won the presidential election with 39 percent of the vote. Formerly the mayor of the southern city of Davao, the authoritarian Duterte would gain global infamy for his “war on drugs,” which killed between 5,000 and 27,000 people, and for undermining the country’s institutions.

In 2022, the son and namesake of the former dictator Ferdinand Marcos won with a substantially larger victory, securing 58.8 percent of the vote. The victory of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. capped off a remarkable comeback for the Marcos family, who had been ousted from power during the 1986 “People Power” revolution following a 14-year period of Martial Law under Ferdinand Marcos Sr.

As with PN in Malaysia, the victorious campaigns of both candidates were attributed largely to youth support, namely to voters in the 18-34 age bracket. In 2016, Duterte would be able to score a 33-point-advantage among those aged 18-24 and a 26-point advantage in the 25-34 age group over his closest rival Mar Roxas. Marcos would top these numbers in 2022, reaching a 27-point-advantage in the 18-24 age group and a 45-point-advantage among those aged 25-34.

A Backlash to Corruption and Cronyism  

This shift toward illiberal populism among the youth of both countries can be attributed to multiple factors. First, analysts have pointed to youth dissatisfaction with the political status quo, and in particular anger at corruption. The turn of Malay-Muslim youth toward PN, for example, has been attributed mostly to dissatisfaction with the high-level corruption found within Malaysia’s political class. In particular, disenchantment with BN’s rampant money politics, exemplified by the massive 1MDB corruption scandal, saw many young Malays shift their support from BN, the traditional guardian of Malay rights, toward PN.

Studies of Filipino youth would also suggest similar sentiments concerning the state of local politics, albeit not as obvious from a surface analysis. One 2021 study on Filipino youth perspectives found that 70 percent of the country’s youth had expressed satisfaction with the state of democracy in the Philippines. And yet, looking at how Filipino youth understood democracy, it was found that a third of them prioritized social equality, defined as the government’s provision of basic necessities and a narrowing of the gap between rich and poor. A further quarter understood democracy as good governance, defined as a politics clean of corruption and characterized by the provision of quality public services.

Understanding this, Duterte sought to focus on these areas during his campaign in 2016. By railing against corruption and the elites, and calling for the end to pork-barrel politics, Duterte was able to align his campaign with the policy priorities of the country’s youth. As such, outright democratic dissatisfaction was not as much a deciding factor in Duterte’s victory as the promise for an administration that understood and prioritized youth voters’ needs.

The Impact of Social Media 

The turn of much of Southeast Asia’ youth toward illiberalism can also be understood through the outsized role of social media. According to the Digital 2024 report published by the advisory firm Kepios, both the Philippines and Malaysia stood in the top 15 countries worldwide in terms of the average time spent daily using social media. In both countries, social media has emerged as the primary medium through which young voters engage in politics. Given that most platforms remain under-regulated in terms of content moderation, especially in non-Western markets, this has also exposed many young voters in both countries to significant amounts of hate propaganda and disinformation.

Analysts have pointed to social media as helping contribute to the solid gains made by PN in GE15. Armed with a significant war chest entering the campaign, PN was able to fund social media influencers who would create pro-PN content on multiple platforms, in particular TikTok. Analysts also point to a longer trend of online right-wing activism preceding GE15 involving both PN politicians and right-wing influencers. Both of these helped manufacture and mainstream toxic narratives about Malays and Islam coming under threat from the Chinese, liberals, and the LGBT community, thereby helping push younger voters away from the progressive-leaning PH and toward PN.

Social media also played a crucial role in ensuring Marcos’ victory in 2022, with Facebook in this case serving as the primary medium. Much of the pro-Marcos content found online entering the election sought to promote revisionist perspectives concerning the Martial Law period under Marcos Sr. Despite his “New Society” regime being characterized by historians as a rapacious kleptocracy that looted an estimated $10 billion from the country by the time of its collapse, pro-Marcos social media content instead portrayed his regime as a “golden age” for the Philippines. Concurrent with this historical revisionism was extensive disinformation regarding Marcos Jr’s primary opponent, then-Vice President Leni Robredo. Indeed, in 2021 a spokesman for Robredo’s team described the campaign machineries of both Duterte and Marcos as “factories of disinformation,” which they had been battling against since 2016.


The illiberal turn of Malaysian and Filipino youth in their countries’ recent elections challenges traditional narratives stating that youth voters will always lean toward more liberal and progressive candidates. While determining why voters vote the way they do remains a complex task, our research has identified two common factors. The first was a common dissatisfaction with the political status quo and a backlash to corruption and elitist politics. Secondly, we point to the outsized role of social media and its ability to spread hateful content, disinformation, and historical revisionism.

It is possible similar factors helped influence the behavior of Indonesia’s youth voters in the country’s recent election, including possibly delivering strongman candidate Prabowo Subianto to the presidency. Ultimately, we hope our research can serve to inspire further research and reflections on the rise of illiberal and populist tendencies among youth voters across Southeast Asia.