The State of Democracy in Southeast Asia


While observers of the state of democracy agree that democracy has been in decline in the recent years, its trajectory in the Southeast Asian region has at least shown mixed results. Across the region, governments conduct elections and citizens cast their votes. Elections are still treated as the ultimate yardstick for “democracy” in Southeast Asia.

In the post-cold war period, the region has witnessed at least three democratic milestones: first, in 1986, when the People Power Revolution in the Philippines led to the toppling of the Marcos regime and the rise of a new democratic government under Cory Aquino. Second, in 1998, when the resignation of Indonesia’s Former President Soeharto ended the 3 decade-long authoritarian government and ushered in the reformasi period which introduced direct elections and decentralization. Third, in 2015 when Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party rode a popular wave into a sweeping victory in Myanmar’s parliamentary election. Despite these achievements, various challenges in the recent years continue to curb democracy and democratization in the region.

To be fair, there is something to be said for the fact that elections are still treated as the ultimate yardstick for “democracy” in Southeast Asia. Across the region, governments conduct elections and citizens cast their votes. However, the elections’ varying degrees of freeness, fairness and administrative efficacy indicate that while some serve the purpose of being the mechanism for a peaceful arbitration of political rivalries, others merely give authoritarian regimes a veneer of legitimacy. In addition, popular suffrage has also provided a platform on which various undemocratic strategies to maintain or achieve power can be tested. Among these, intimidation, patronage/corruption, populism and identity-politics are widely used by elites to achieve political triumph.

More than the mere perfunctory elections, substantive democracy ideally calls for a political system that is marked by a free and fair elections, rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion and property.[1] The article aims at highlighting the practice of democracy in some countries in Southeast Asian to show to what extent elections have brought in the above bundle of freedoms into the political system.

The following sub-section shows that across the region countries have shown mixed results. It is followed by a discussion on selected individual countries, such as Malaysia, where voters’ genuine preference for clean governance has curbed the elites’ strategy of identity-politics, and Indonesia, in which identity-politics and populism have continued to shape democracy. Lastly, as 2019 will be the political year for some Southeast Asian countries, the article examines whether the present condition will have a bearing on the state of democracy in the region next year.

Southeast Asian democracy: mixed results

The Freedom House’s “Freedom in the World” report assesses the condition of political rights and civil liberties around the world. The Freedom House’s 2018 report on Southeast Asian countries shows institutional stagnation, with Myanmar being the only one whose status was improved from “not free” to “partly free” after the military representatives accepted the results of parliament elections held in 2015 and the parliamentary held the country’s first relatively free presidential election. Indonesia, Malaysia and Philippines listed as “partly free” while Brunei, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam are “not free”. Due to such stagnation, some observers argued that for the Southeast Asian case, democracy has not deteriorated, but authoritarianism has endured.[2]

This year, however, one country’s election has brought hope for the region’s state of democracy.

Malaysia’s groundbreaking GE14 has generated much democratic optimism. The victory of the opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH), or the “coalition of hope”, led by a veteran politician, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, against the corruption-ridden Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition led by former Prime Najib Razak, has indicated the limit to the latter’s strategies of identity-politics and gerrymandering.[3] The election was the first which resulted in a transfer of power since the country’s independence in 1957.

Malaysia’s monumental achievement show a striking contrast to the democratic setbacks suffered by some Southeast Asian countries.

In Cambodia, PM Hun Sen’s Cambodian’s People’s Party (CPP) has won an election which did not accommodate the main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). The latter was dissolved by the Supreme Court in 2017, shortly after the arrest of its leader in September on treason charges.[4] The government also increased the control of media, taking 15 independent radio stations off the air in 2017 for “breaching of contract”. The Cambodia Daily newspaper was forced to close after receiving a sudden hefty tax bills that it could not pay[5] and the only remaining independent newspaper The Pnom Penh Post has been bought by a Malaysian company which some considered as having a close connection to Hun Sen’s government.[6]

In Myanmar, the world’s initial enthusiasm over the landslide win of NLD in 2015 fades away as Aung San Suu Kyi’s government faces the allegations that it has failed to handle the Rohingya crisis. While many observers understand that the military still controls three vital ministries – home affairs, defense and border affairs – and that the military is the real power in northern Rakhine state and along the border with Bangladesh,[7] many had hoped that Ms Suu Kyi would speak more strongly concerning the issue. In the Singapore Lecture in August, in addition to reiterating her hope to cooperate with Bangladesh for the return of “the displaced persons from North Rakhine”, she blamed terrorism as the root cause of the conflict.[8]

In Thailand, the military government has finally announced that it will hold an election in February 2019, after a repeated cancellation since it seized power in 2014. The constitution enacted in April 2017 was designed to weaken big political parties. The main aim, according to critics, was to curb the political allies of former PM Thaksin Shinawatra – his sister Yingluck’s government was overthrown by the military in 2014 – from getting power. The constitution introduces a modified proportional method of choosing the 500 members of the lower house of the parliament in which people vote for one of 350 constituency candidates; the total of those votes determine which of the remaining 150 party list seats go to which party.[9] At the same time, the military’s strict regulations, such as the banning of political gatherings, have limited the interaction between politicians and potential voters.[10]

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte won the 2016 election with a campaign which emphasized on his promise to restore the supremacy of law and bring down the entrenched elites. As his war on drugs rages on, reports have shown that many innocents are among the more than 12,000 that were killed -allegedly by extrajudicial measures- including lawyers who have acted on behalf of drug suspects.[11] Moreover, in February this year, the Philippines supreme court approved a one-year extension of the martial law decree covering the southern third of the country.[12]  The President had initiated the martial law across Mindanao in May 2016 when the military fought the uprising of the pro-ISIS militant groups.

Even in Indonesia, where democracy is considered the most consolidated in the region, the growing influence of Islamist politics has put sectarianism on the center stage of mainstream politics. Sectarianism culminated in 2017, when the hardline and conservative Islamic groups’ mobilization succeeded in preventing the re-election of the then-incumbent Chinese Christian Jakarta governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, and his subsequent imprisonment for blasphemy.[13] This year, anticipating a repeat of a bitter sectarian campaign in the presidential election scheduled to be held in April 2019, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has appointed a senior Islamic cleric, Ma’ruf Amin, as his running-mate. Mr Amin’s conservative inclination, however, has brought concerns among Jokowi’s pluralist supporters, among whom there is a call for abstention, or not to vote, in next year’s election.[14]

The next section deals with the influence and limits of identity-politics (and populism) in two largest democracies in the region, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Vote for PAS, Free Tollway, Honk if you agree, campaign messages in Malaysia

Malaysia’s GE14: the limit to identity-politics?

The new government has moved to fulfill one of its most important tasks, which is to prosecute those involved in the 1MDB corruption scandal.[15] After investigations, the Former PM Najib Razak has been arrested today (19 September) by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission and will be charged tomorrow.[16] In addition to gains in the anti-graft sphere, the new government has also made important other important steps, including establishing a committee to look into the institutional reforms in the country.[17]

Pakatan Harapan (PH)’s monumental triumph in the recent GE14 was caused by various underlying proximate and deep-seated factors. Meredith Weiss listed some of these causes:[18] firstly, BN’s leader, Former PM Najib Razak, was exceedingly unpopular, even among the United Malays Nationalist Organization (UMNO)’s party members and supporters, especially due to his alleged involvement in the corruption scandal. With other BN parties such as Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) having suffered a steady decline,[19] BN is now faced with the problem of regeneration.

Secondly, PH’s chairman Dr Mahathir Mohamad, a legendary and well-respected former prime minister, has a pro-Malay track record which assured that PH would safeguard Malay interest. Still, PH did not win a majority of Malay votes. A three-way split of the Malay electorate among UMNO, PH and Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS),[20] the latter taking votes from UMNO on west coast peninsular Malaysia. PAS’ campaign was based on both Islamism and Malay nationalism.

The reliance on Dr Mahathir’s popularity also brings up the question on whether PH’s leader Anwar Ibrahim would be able to maintain voters’ trust in the coalition. Mr Ibrahim’s statement after being released from prison in May, “we would of course protect the position of the Malaysian Bumiputeras, but not enriching them to become billionaires” is an attempt to garner Malay’s support for the racially pluralistic Pakatan Harapan.[21] This statement might also indicate a change in PH’s perception. PH under Mr Ibrahim had lost the 2013 election after having called for the dismantling of the affirmative policies which favor ethnic Malays.[22]

Thirdly, parties under Pakatan Harapan have had a long history preparing for their coalition, from the 1960s Socialist Front, Gagasan and Angkatan Perpaduan Ummah in the 1980s, to Barisan Alternatif, Pakatan Rakyat and Pakatan Harapan since 1999. In addition, PH’s victory this year was built on civic movements such as the Bersih electoral reform movement which had demanded fair elections since 2007, the late 1990s’ Reformasi movement, and others. Despite the repressive laws and arbitrary restriction, movements such as Bersih continue to survive and have helped sustain public awareness on issues such as corruption, which was crucial in developing the momentum for change. Civic movements have also trained generations of activists many of whom have now held influential positions in Pakatan Harapan and the new government.

For some observers, PH’s triumph signified the limits of the identity-politics strategy which BN has employed. However, while ethnic-politics have decreased, ethnic-interest politics, especially those underpinning ethnic preferential policies, are still at the center stage.

Ethnicity has been delineating voting choice because political parties, especially UMNO, mobilize ethnic-ties and prejudice towards ethnic outsiders and disburse public patronage and rewards via ethnic-based policies.[23] Part of this strategy, gerrymandering was used to consolidate Malay-dominated electoral dominance, by redelineating the constituency structure and make-up which enables BN-UMNO to maximize on its ethnic support.[24]

In addition, Malaysia’s Chinese-majority Democratic Action Party (DAP) was portrayed as a threat to Malay supremacy and was used to unify Malay-Muslims from different political parties.[25] However according to an observer this strategy was not effective in the GE14, because:[26] firstly, the use of exclusionary religious issues has instead consolidated the support of non-Muslim voters towards PH. Secondly, PH has been able to accommodate the interests of Malay Muslims from different orientations such as the nationalists, such as Dr Mahathir and his Bersatu party, and the moderate Islamists such as Amanah.

Some, however, are still wary of the possibility that BN would use provocation to challenge the current multiracial narratives, and that the new government, in order to accommodate the opposition, would backtrack from its promises. In relation to affirmative policies, for example, one observer highlighted the fact that the newly appointed Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng, after affirming an open tender policy for federal public procurement, quickly emphasized that the government would not sideline Malay contractors.[27] In the education sector, although there are additional matriculation spaces for Chinese students from poor background, the new Education Minister Mazlee Malik asserted that the spaces for Bumiputeras would not be reduced.[28] While identity-politics might have been curbed in the elections, the post-election Malaysia seems to still face challenges pertaining to the ethnic preferential policies, especially because the new multiracial ruling coalition needs to win and/or maintain the support of the Malays.

"Don't vote carelessly, so that you won't regret it" Street Art in Jakarta

Indonesia’s elections: contending populisms and intensified identity-politics

Indonesia will hold its fourth presidential election in 2019. In terms of candidates, the 2019 presidential election will be a repeat of the 2014 two-horse race between President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and Prabowo Subianto, a former general who has strong ties to the Soeharto regime. Prabowo had previously also run as vice-presidential candidate in Indonesia’s 2009 election.

While many observers consider Indonesia’s democracy as the most consolidated in the region, the country’s recent elections, especially the 2014 presidential election and local elections have shown the predominance of populism and identity-politics. According to Levitsky and Loxton[29] populists are outsiders who mobilize support by positioning themselves in opposition to the elite, and establish personalistic linkage to voters. “Maverick” populists as “political insiders who abandon established parties and make personalistic, anti-establishment appeals.”

To be fair, various types of populism were at play in the 2014 election[30] and Jokowi himself used “soft populism” to attract the rural and the lower/lower-middle class votes. His victory showed that “soft populism” was more attractive than the “oligarchic populism” used by Prabowo. Voters were especially fascinated by Jokowi’s impromptu visits to the markets and other public places, dubbed blusukan, which he did in order to directly listen to people’s grievances, and which was something that members of the elites never did before. Whenever he had the opportunity, Jokowi would mention his humble beginnings: his father was a carpenter and he himself was a mere furniture business owner in Solo, Central Java. Voters knew how he was elected as Mayor of Solo in 2005 and 2005 and of his pro-poor policies such free healthcare and education scholarship, and that he persuaded street vendors to move to an alternative site and did not evict them like other city officials did.

In 2012, Jokowi had also succeeded in winning the Jakarta gubernatorial election alongside Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) by appealing to the “people” who aspired to oust the old-style “elite” city government portrayed by the then-incumbent governor Fauzi Bowo. During this election, Jokowi and Ahok were, ironically, supported by Prabowo’s Great Indonesia Movement (Gerindra) party alongside former President Megawati Soekarnoputri’s Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDIP). Back then, Prabowo vehemently dubbed Jokowi and Ahok “the best [leaders] for the people”.[31]

Prabowo’s support for the pro-poor Jokowi in 2012 could then be understood as the former’s “maverick” move in preparation for the 2014 presidential election. He tried to abandon his connections to the rich oligarchs and the Soeharto regime by portraying himself as a heroic pro-poor outsider who would restore Indonesia’s democracy. Some observers compared his moves to those of Thaksin Shinawatra, also an oligarch, who could garner votes from the country’s poor by promising access to healthcare and a three-year debt moratorium for farmers.[32] Despite these efforts, due to the popularity of the then-incumbent President Yudhoyono, Prabowo, who ran alongside Megawati as her VP candidate, lost the 2009 election.

It was also detrimental for Prabowo, that Jokowi ended up running against him in the 2014 presidential election. Jokowi’s triumph in Jakarta had boosted the latter’s popularity among middle and lower class’ voters. Jokowi then won the 2014 election by gaining 53% of the total votes, against Prabowo’s 47%. For some observers, he symbolized the triumph of the “people”, pro-reform and anti-New Order forces, and pluralism (including religious tolerance).[33]

President Jokowi still embodies these values, for many of his supporters, although some of his recent policies, such as banning organizations deemed against the state ideology Pancasila, seemed to hark back to New Order’s harsher tactics.[34] With this law, he has banned the Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), an Islamist group aiming at establishing a caliphate.

Jokowi also continues being popular, with a recent survey portraying his “electability” rate of 48.4% against Prabowo’s 32.2%.[35] However, there are reasons for concerns for the President. A survey fielded in February mentioned that a significant number of moderate Muslims were leaning towards Prabowo:[36] 25.4% of those connected to Nahdlatul Ulama and 34.6% of those connected to Muhammadiyah -both are the country’s largest moderate Muslim organizations- would vote for the former general.

Jokowi’s appointment of Ma’ruf Amin, a conservative Muslim scholar, who appears to be acceptable to both the moderates and the conservatives, as his running-mate, thus seems to be a safety move. Islamist politics, championed by Prabowo and his conservative friends, has succeeded in defeating Jokowi’s ally Basuki Tjahaja Purnama in Jakarta’s 2017 election. Moreover, in the 2018 local elections, identity-politics was also successfully employed by Muslim gubernatorial candidates in religiously heterogeneous provinces such as West Kalimantan and North Sumatra.[37] Due to these triumphs, the likelihood of Prabowo’s camp to use sectarian campaigning in 2019 is high. This can also be seen by the recent gathering of Ijtima Ulama in which some conservative Muslim leaders declared their support for Prabowo as president.[38]

So far, whether Jokowi’s strategy to partner with Ma’ruf Amin will be successful remains to be seen. Yet his decision to appoint a conservative cleric as his running-mate has indicated the growing importance of identity-politics in Indonesia’s democracy

2019: a political year

2019 will be a political year for some Southeast Asian countries that are anticipating elections.

In Thailand, gearing towards next year’s election, the military government has promised to lift the ban on political activities by October 2018. Parties will be allowed to establish budgets and gather funds from members, amend changes in their regulations, recruit new members, and appoint leaders provided that the government is informed at least five days in advance.[39] Some observers began to speculate whether PM Prayuth Chan-ocha will decide to join for his next bid to be prime minister. Even if he does not take part in the next election, he could still be reappointed as the next PM as the constitution allows for someone who is not a member of the parliament to be chosen.

The Philippines’ mid-term elections will take place in May 2019, where 12 out of 24 seats in the Senate and 297 seats in the House of Representative will be up for contest. Analysts are speculating that lawmakers aligned with the ruling PDP-Laban party will dominate the Senate after the polls. While President Duterte’s power consolidation would be positive for policy-making, there are concerns that this pose a challenge to the country’s checks and balances system.[40] Meanwhile, the President has assured that the elections would be free from intimidation and vote-buying.[41]

As Indonesia embarks upon the long presidential election’s campaign period on 23 September 2018 – 13 April 2019, identity-politics will likely be used as a strategy to mobilize support. In addition, President Jokowi’s lackluster performance in economy, especially the failure to achieve 7% economic growth which the President had promised in 2014 and the societal impact of the weakening of rupiah, will also likely be a focal point in the opponent’s campaign. Meanwhile, the President, who has “shielded” himself from sectarian campaigning by appointing an Islamic scholar as his running-mate, will try to attract voters by “populist” policies by introducing energy subsidy and increasing civil servants’ salaries.



[1] Fareed Zakaria, "The rise of illiberal democracy." Foreign Affairs 76 (1997): 22.

[2] Thomas Pepinsky, “Democracy isn’t receding in Southeast Asia, authoritarianism is enduring.” East Asia Forum, 4 November 2017. (accessed 10/9/2018).

[13] Deasy Simandjuntak, “Faced with a troubling blasphemy verdict, Ahok at least left Jakarta a legacy of reform”, Channel NewsAsia commentary, 11 May 2017, (accessed 9/9/2018).

[14] Ahmad Najib Burhani and Deasy Simandjuntak, “The Ma’ruf Amin’s vice-presidential candidacy: Enticing or Splitting the Conservative votes?”, ISEAS Perspective 51, (accessed 10/9/2018).

[18] Meredith Weiss, “Malaysia after GE14: transition to what?” New Mandala, 14 May 2018 (accessed 14/09/2018).

[23] Lee Hock Guan, “Mal-apportionment and the electoral authoritarian regime in Malaysia” in Johan Sravanamuttu, Lee Hock Guan and Mohamed Nawab Mohamed Osman, eds, Coalitions in Collision: Malaysia’s 13th General Elections (ISEAS Publishing, 2015), p.68.

[24] Lee Hock Guan, 2015, p. 84.

[25] Arunajeet Kaur, “Hindraf as a response to Islamization in Malaysia”, in Bernhard Platzdasch and Johan Saravanamuttu, eds. Religious Diversity in Muslim-majority States in Southeast Asia: Areas of Toleration and Conflict (Singapore, ISEAS Publishing, 2014), p.345.

[26] Hew Wai Weng, “The limits to identity-politics in GE14”, New Mandala, 7 May 2018, (accessed 19/09/2018).

[27] Lee Hwok Aun, “New regimes, old policies and a bumiputera reboot”, New Mandala, 16 September 2018, (accessed 20/09/2018).

[28] Lee Hwok Aun, 2018.

[29] Steven Levitsky and James Loxton. "Populism and competitive authoritarianism in the Andes." Democratization20.1 (2013): 107-136, p. 110.

[30] Marcus Mietzner. Reinventing Asian populism: Jokowi's rise, democracy, and political contestation in Indonesia. Honolulu, HI: East-West Center, 2015.

[32] Duncan McCargo and Ukrist Pathmanand. The thaksinization of Thailand. Vol. 4. Nias Press, 2005.

[34] Deasy Simandjuntak, “Jokowi’s ban on radical groups and Pancasila’s uncomfortable past”, Channel NewsAsia Commentary 22 July 2017, (accessed 14/09/2018).

[35] Survei Alvara: Elektabilitas Jokowi 48.44 persen, Prabowo 32.2 persen (“Alvara Survey: Jokowi’s electability at 48.4 percent, Prabowo 32.2 percent”) (accessed 3/9/2018).

[37] Deasy Simandjuntak, “North Sumatra’s 2018 Election: Religion, Sons-of-the-Soil and PDIP’s waning popularity”, ISEAS Perspective, forthcoming in October 2018.

[38]Ahmad Najib Burhani and Deasy Simandjuntak 2018.