The promise of democracy? The gap between authoritarianism and democracy in Southeast Asia
Image: Samira Kanetkar

In the western world, democracy is the stage upon which our entire development rests. To the Global South however, the antagonism between authoritarianism and calls for democratisation has set a scene of tumultuous governance. 

2019 was a pivotal year of political hope that concluded in a regressive trend of continuity, in turn cementing the bleak democratic prospects for Southeast Asia. Under the guise of democratic proceedings, the region’s continuous legitimisation of authoritarianism reveals what can be named as the ultimate “manipulation” of democracy. The contentious bipolarity between authoritarianism and democratisation is highlighted in the political turmoil that was propagated in 2019. 

Held for the first time since the 2014 Coup D’etat, the elections in Thailand expressed a youth-oriented hope for a transition back to a democratically-elected government. Activism facilitated the anti-Junta call for political reform, in what can only be described as a cataclysmic call for change. Hope was not enough. Backed by the monarchy, in deeply flawed elections rigged to ensure a military preservation of control, the military Junta entrenched its power for yet another term. 

The mobilisation of religion in authoritarian parties

In Indonesia, the world’s largest election took place, with an estimated 193 million voters eligible to freely, fairly and peacefully select a government. Incumbent leader Joko Widodo, otherwise known as Jokowi, won a second term after obtaining 54.5% of the vote. However, steeped in a partisan manipulation of institutions, a continuous dis-empowerment of the opposition, and a mobilisation of Islam as a campaign strategy, the election unveiled itself as less than democratically ideal. The mobilisation of Islam is particularly controversial given the way in which Indonesia amalgamates its political and religious identity. Prompting international critique, Jokowi’s tactful mobilisation of Islam saw him partner with Conservative Cleric Ma’ruf Amin. Used as a means to achieve political and electoral gain, the “manipulation” of identity politics, as a campaign strategy, has given rise to the questions of whether a new hybrid Nationalism is facing Indonesian politics. 

In this authoritarian turn, Jokowi tarnished his own reformist credentials. Facing dispute from the opposition, who continue to contest the results in accusations of fraudulent ballots, Jokowi faced the largest mass outrage since Suharto in 1998. This is indicative of the reformer who regressed into arbitrary rule. Authoritarian regimes show themselves to achieve a semblance of democratic legitimacy through the running of elections. But, as shown by the failures of Thailand and Indonesia, the calibre of democracy operating in the region serves authoritarian manipulation more than it serves the civilians’ calls for change.

A mixed democratic status

The political disarray of the region is widespread: Malaysia is currently in the midst of a fractured coalition. Characterised by a polarized and confrontational rule, Malaysian leaders are in a continuous search for a clear direction. The Philippines is also in a precarious situation, whereby, the midterm success of president Rodrigo Duterte, was not hindered, despite the accusation of vast human right abuses in the face of the war on drugs.

The entrenchment of these leaders is emblematic of the region’s desperate call for democracy being repeatedly defeated by the prevailing systems of royalism and authoritarianism. The decidedly mixed democratic status of Southeast Asia exemplifies an incoherence that sets the precedent for the turbulent politics being practiced region wide. The region is ultimately divided by entrenched elites grappling for coherence on issues of corruption, identity and inequality. With the rise of a sophisticated authoritarianism taking hold of Southeast Asia, the political proceedings of 2020 are set to carve out a potentially bleak future for many. The calls for ‘democratisation’ may continue to fall short and instead reinstate the already prevailing powers. 

Stalled in their democratic transition, the elections scheduled for late 2020 in Myanmar present what could be the opportunity for a democratic milestone. Aung San Suu Kyi, current leader of NLD, holds the position of an “icon of democracy who fell from grace”.

Elected in 2015, in what was considered a historic landslide, NLD’s success was dependent on calls for peaceful resistance to opposition and their grave advocacy for the development of democracy. 

Yet, defined by their failings in dealing with the 2015 Rohingya crisis, NLD faces an uncertain future. Turning her back on democracy, human rights and the rightful condemnation of the military, Aung San Suu Kyi, once Nobel Peace Prize winner, has set the tone for a transitioning democracy stalled by an unwillingness to move past the authoritarian systems embedded into Myanmar. With these issues being ideologically and ethnically divisive, the country is set to have a more politically competitive and diverse race for power. It is unlikely that NLD will see the landslide victory it once saw in 2015. 

The inspection of Myanmar’s progress reveals a fear for the ability of democracy to truly operate. The United States Institute of Peace (USIP) has declared the need for a recommitment to non-violent, free, fair and peaceful elections. With widespread concerns for the country’s ability to operate democratically, the proceedings of 2020 are set to establish how Myanmar will continue to develop in its striving for democracy. Myanmar’s upcoming election represents the same dilemma that faced Thailand’s 2019 election. Will hope and calls for beneficial change be heard and displace authoritarianism? Or will democracy merely be “manipulated” once more in the assurance of an authoritarian governance?

The upcoming elections: an emblem of hope, or fear?

With the region’s democratic future hanging in the balance of the pivotal political events of 2020, Singapore’s upcoming 13th election is worth particular attention. PAP, leading party since 1959, is more than likely to see ‘victory’ once again. Especially when considering the home-sway advantage they receive by the favourable constituency boundaries. Winning the election would see the entrenchment of Singapore’s one-party state in all its dominance. 

This election contains the scope for considerable insight. In what will see the generational passing of the baton to 4th generation leader Heng Swee Keat, the tone he sets for the elections can be telling of his presidency. Observing how Heng Swee Keat engages and connects with voters will be revealing of the future of Singapore. With a new generational lead, the opportunity for a reformed style of leadership presents itself. 

Democracy – simply a veil for authoritarianism?

Meanwhile, the Philippines is plagued by not only the pandemic of COVID-19 but of the overexertion of an authoritarian power, oppressing its citizens within the framework of ‘democracy’.

Upon closer inspection of the current Philippino government’s attempt to squash civilian opposition (the ultimate sign of rising authoritarianism,) the philippines future election results threaten a complete upheaval of democracy. The 2020 Anti-Terrorism Act passed by both the Senate and the House of Representatives in February in Manila, is set to be quickly signed into law by president Duterte. The legislation will provide sweeping powers to the President, allowing him to stifle what has been loosely deemed as ‘dissent’ in the name of counterterrorism.  The act permits authorities to detain people for up to twenty-four days without charge and once charged they could face up to life in prison without parole. In what has been dubbed the ultimate “death of democracy” by Protestor Ana Celestial, this drafted piece of legislation contains the seeds for a complete undermining of democracy.

With no concern for citizens and their freedoms, with no ability to oppose or contest the government, comes no credible democratic substance. This is an apt example of the way in which democracy is arguably not valued by these authoritarian leaders, but rather, viewed as a stepping stone of legitimacy that merely entrenches their illiberal autocratic power. Outlined by an inquiry from Freedom House, the evidence to support the continuation of a democratic crisis facing the region is strong. The clash between the calls for democratisation and the refusal to leave authoritarian rule behind has deeply embedded itself into the political machine of Southeast Asia. 

The upcoming proceedings of 2020 could see a steering away from authoritarianism in a newfound commitment to democracy. But this seems uncertain. Esteeming itself as a political collage of fragmentation, Southeast Asia is bound by the fabric of royalism, authoritarianism and often oppression.  What looked like the prospect of stability and democratic transition has instead proved to be the generator of uncertainty, with the regions’ political stability seeming more elusive than ever. 

The uncomfortable lesson to be learnt is that the problems facing the region are not because of too much change, but rather too much continuity. Will democracy ever be promised in a region plagued by its unrelenting authoritarian regime?